I was finally able to see Wes Anderson’s newest film Isle of Dogs this weekend, after weeks of confused waiting (the film’s US release date was March 23, but it wasn’t showing up in Toledo theaters for some reason).  I finally figured out the problem: limited releases don’t play in Toledo. So, I had to go to Ann Arbor to see it. I’m not complaining, though, as I thoroughly enjoyed the movie.  I love Wes Anderson’s directing style and visual aesthetic, and it’s wonderful to see him tackle stop-motion animation again after his strong debut with Fantastic Mr. Fox.  

For anyone who likes great ensemble casts, Isle of Dogs is a perfect example of a showcase of talent.  You’ve got Anderson mainstays like Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Bob Balaban, and F. Murray Abraham filling in the primary roles, and newcomers Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Greta Gerwig, Bryan Cranston, Liev Schreiber, Ken Watanabe and Yoko Ono in supporting capacities.  I’d have liked to have seen a few more Japanese actors in the main cast, but I love the voices as an ensemble.

There are some international newcomers rounding out the Japanese side cast, who speak exclusively Japanese.  In fact, the only subtitling in the movie happens when Japanese characters are displayed on screen for comedic and/or expository effect.  All other times, the Japanese is either translated by characters or machines, or decipherable through context clues.

Most of what I have to say about this movie comes from its brilliant presentation.  Anderson has already proven himself to be a virtuoso in shot composition, coloration, cinematography, and production design, and this film stands up to the standards set previously by him.  Every set piece is so intricate and well-executed, and the character models behave so realistically, that it’s easy to forget that the movie is all animated. And there is a practical reason behind the stop-motion, besides that it looks awesome.  If Anderson had chosen live-action characters with CGI dogs (or CGI dog mouths), the movie would’ve been an Air Bud sequel. Enough said there.

The music is some of the best I’ve heard in a Wes Anderson movie.  Anderson is working with long-time collaborator Alexandre Desplat, and the film features a wonderful mix of Desplat’s customary strings-heavy work, Morricone-style Western songs, and Japanese taiko drums (the trailer is a good microcosm of the film’s soundtrack for anyone wondering).  

I can’t speak to the quality of the story or analysis therein.  Partially because it’s already been beaten to death in every critical review of the film, but partially because it doesn’t really matter to me.  Some are accusing Anderson of cultural appropriation and bias for setting the movie in Japan, borrowing heavily from Japanese cinema, and creating an (admittedly) white savoir-ish character.  I’ve always seen Anderson’s movies as being set in a fantasy world, where anything goes just because that’s how the world is. That might not fly for some, but it’s my own interpretation. Besides, the movie’s presentation tips the scale so heavily in its favor that it’s hard for me not to recommend it.  See it for yourself and make your own conclusions.

There are only two groups for whom I really can’t recommend the movie: kids and cat lovers.  Even though the movie is animated and the dogs are very fluffy, there’s some heavy stuff in the movie: death, murder, disease, a holocaust plan, and a large conspiracy surrounding the movie’s impetus.  The dogs’ appearances are occasionally frightening, and may scare younger kids. I’m not saying “do not, under any circumstances, bring your children.” I’m just warning you that the movie is PG-13, and you might not want to.  If you’re a cat-lover, sorry. The movie’s very dog-centric (obviously), and there’s a heavy implication that the villains in the movie are cat people (the central logo in the evil organization is a cat head).

All in all, I love the movie, though I recognize that it won’t be for everyone.  I give it a 9.5/10 and recommend that anyone interested go see it as soon as it comes out (hopefully it will be in Toledo by the time this is published).  If not, Ann Arbor’s a 45-minute drive north.