Putting Pets out With the Trash: 'Isle of Dogs' Review

Updated on April 23, 2018


People sometimes say that one of the greatest bonds that can be seen occur between a boy and his dog. Circumstances test those bonds in the animated feature Isle Of Dogs. In a Japanese city of the near future, dogs find themselves unwelcome when a dog flu strikes many in the canine population. Megasaki Mayor Kobayashi (Konichi Nomura) decrees all dogs should be banished to the litter mountains on Trash Island. The first dog to go is Spots (Liev Schreiber), the beloved pet of Kobayashi's ward and nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin). In time, though, the 12-year-old gets a hold of an airplane in search of the dog he has never stopped missing. When he crash lands, he finds a pack of five dogs willing to help: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and Chief (Bryan Cranston). They defend Atari from rescuers intent on taking Atari home. They also get help from fellow canines Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) and Oracle (Tilda Swinton), who believe that Spots is with a pack of dogs rumored to be cannibals. As they head there, Atari and his pack become separated, leaving Atari and Chief to continue by themselves.

Meanwhile in Megasaki, Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) perfects a vaccine and presents his findings to the mayor. Kobayashi not only ignores Watanabe's proof, the mayor also makes sure nobody knows, and dogs don't get the vaccine that will cure them. Whle the citizens have complied with the executive order, American exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) grows suspicious about the banishment. She investigates, and catches up to Watanabe's former assistant scientist, Yoko Ono (Yoko Ono), who shares some key details about their work. As this happens, Atari finds Chief looks very different after giving the dog a bath. They find Spots, but life has changed for him, and he has new responsibilities and loyalties. Nevertheless, Atari has a plan to rescue all of the dogs as his uncle prepares to run for re-election.


Isle Of Dogs marks the second animated feature from Wes Anderson, whose previous venture into stop motion animation was Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009. Unlike Fantastic Mr. Fox, which was adapted from a Roald Dahl book, Anderson created the basic story with others, including Jason Schwartzman and Nomura. Anderson, as his usual, presents a literate, quirky, and engaging story about the bond between boy and dog. This film has dialog in both English and Japanese, with spoken-word translations provided for all Japanese lines. While some children might enjoy the storytelling here, I think that the movie will connect more with older audiences because Anderson presents much detail. Kids about the same age as Atari might appreciate the detail, but younger audiences will likely fare better with a dog movie like My Dog Skip and Marley & Me. Anderson fans will probably appreciate his effort, though. They will also be reminded of his earlier films, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, where dogs fare badly in different ways than the title characters here.

Anderson has a huge ensemble who clearly enjoys what they're doing. Cranston and Rankin do well as unlikely traveling companions. Cranston, as Chief, initially doesn't want to join the search for Spots until persuaded to go by Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), who feels for Atari. Chief turns out to be a vital part of the search, though he's had less interaction with people because he spent most of his time living as a stray. He has to remember the best part of Chief, who ran away from home over an incident with his former master. In time, he lives up to the name on his dog tag. Rankin shows his passion as Atari, who not only wants to rescue Spots, but he wants every dog to be treated with the decency they deserve, in spite of his cat-loving uncle. Another standout performance comes from Gerwig as Tracy. She, like Atari and Chief, are outsiders in the dog controversy. That doesn't stop Tracy from questioning authority and uncovering facts Mayor Kobayashi wants hidden. In addition to the cast already mentioned, Frances McDormand and Frank Wood provide interpretative voices, while Harvey Keitel, Ken Watanabe, and Anjelica Huston have small roles. Courtney B. Vance seems to be channeling his inner Morgan Freeman with his dignified narration.


Isle Of Dogs takes a different approach to the relationship between a boy and his dog. However, the film, by doing this, may not appeal to the youngest of dog-loving people. Any pet owner knows that this relationship between pet and person lasts far too little time. Young Atari realizes that, and is determined to make the most of that time for himself and anyone else who wants to make the most of this bond.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Isle Of Dogs three stars. Holding on to a canine friend for his life.

Isle Of Dogs trailer

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    © 2018 Pat Mills


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