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Friday, August 14, 2020

It’s a dog-eat-dog world: Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” stuns

Illustration by Julia Furukawa // The Western Front

By Drew Stuart

There’s no other filmmaker like Wes Anderson.

This is nothing new to anyone familiar with his work, but it is a remarkably fitting sentiment to put forth after watching any of his films for the first time.

Anderson’s distinctive symmetrical shot composition and his loose, dry writing style are immediately noticeable and easily enjoyable.

With his latest film, “Isle of Dogs,” Anderson’s work has never been stronger.

“Isle of Dogs” was written and directed by Anderson, and follows Chief, a stray dog exiled along with the rest of his city’s dogs to a landfill called Trash Island.

Voiced by actor Bryan Cranston, known for acclaimed TV series “Breaking Bad,” Chief and his fellow dogs must learn to survive after the mayor of Megasaki City bans all dogs and ships them to Trash Island.

However, when a young boy named Atari, voiced by Koyu Rankin, leaves Megasaki City to find his dog Spots on Trash Island, it’s up to Chief, Rex, voiced by Edward Norton, King, voiced by Bob Balaban, Boss, voiced by Bill Murray and Duke, voiced by Jeff Goldblum, to reunite Atari with his faithful companion.

Anderson fans will likely appreciate Murray’s appearance. Murray is an Anderson veteran, appearing in every one of his film’s since his second film, Rushmore.

Initially, “Isle of Dogs”  might seem to have a standard adventure story plot, but it’s the execution that makes it stand out.

Right off the bat, the style of “Isle of Dogs” is markedly different than Anderson’s past films. Instead of his usual palette of vibrant pinks and yellows, “Isle of Dogs” is painted in stark reds, grays and browns.

Trash Island is fittingly dotted with murky brown colors and gray blocks of garbage everywhere, while Megasaki City is washed with deep crimson throughout most of the film. Under the rule of an authoritarian cat-loving regime, Megasaki City’s red color palette provides a perfect backdrop for the desolate tone of the movie.

And, of course, the scenery is some of the best around.

Rarely are any backdrops reused and yet each location in the film is filled with detail. It makes the world Anderson creates feel richer and deeper, immersing the viewer into the film with ease.

All of this lends itself to the simple story and succinct comedic writing. The story isn’t complicated, allowing more time to develop the characters Chief, Atari and Tracy, voiced by Greta Gerwig, director of last year’s Oscar nominated film, “Lady Bird.”

Each of the main dogs has ample opportunity for recurring jokes too, incorporated in deceptively-conversational dialogue and quirky remarks. “Isle of Dogs” revels in its mountain of chuckle-worthy humor.

Of course, the camerawork is classic Anderson.

His most recognizable trait is clearly present in “Isle of Dogs.” The great thing here is that it doesn’t feel overused. Yes, nearly every shot is symmetrical, but it provides cohesion. At times, it’s used for dialogue. Other times, it’s used comedically to emphasize the dynamic between characters. Anderson’s style here is distinct, but not pedestrian. It’s masterful.

It’s time to give a disclaimer: this is not a kids movie.

Despite this movie being about dogs, there’s enough bloody violence and death in “Isle of Dogs” to warrant its PG-13 rating. The restrained, sarcastic humor is a dead giveaway as well.

This isn’t “Minions” and it isn’t “Shrek.” It’s a movie about dogs that is both heartwarming and bleak. It might be a better choice for an adult date night.

However, despite its many merits, “Isle of Dogs” is not perfect. Most of the film is in Japanese, except for the universal language of barking.

With this language barrier, the movie becomes slightly less accessible. There are no subtitles for the Japanese dialogue spoken by most human characters, but in their place are characters in the story who often translate the human dialogue into English.

The problem here is that much of what is being translated could easily be shown visually, or inferred from the tone of speech. In fact, at several creative moments in the film, the acting is so human that any language speaker can infer what is happening without subtitles or translation. 

Then comes the issue of romance.

Some viewers might have an issue with Anderson’s portrayal of the female characters and their romantic endeavors. Tracy and Nutmeg, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, are practically the only female characters in “Isle of Dogs.” That’s not bad at face value, but each faces problems related to their role in the story.

Tracy is a fleshed out character, yet has a romantic element with another character in the story that isn’t well explored. Why it’s even in the movie is something of a mystery.

As for Nutmeg, she contributes little to the story, aside from being a vessel for Chief to develop his character. She has great dialogue, but her role in the film is so miniscule that it feels like she’s only there to serve as part of Chief’s character.

Still, “Isle of Dogs” is an excellent film.

It captivates the audience from beginning to end developing likable, adventurous characters who encounter palpable danger. The film has style, but doesn’t forego substance, the two elements are instead bonded together and strengthen the movie.

“Isle of Dogs” is another quality film by Wes Anderson, and it’d be a shame if you were to miss it. It is now being shown at Regal Barkley Village Stadium 16.

Anderson’s logo for the movie. // Illustration by Julia Furukawa

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