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Movie Review

Under normal circumstances, most dogs would love to go to an island covered in trash. So much to eat! So much to roll in! It's all right there!

Alas, the dogs of Megasaki City are not operating under normal circumstances.

Magasaki Mayor and confirmed cat person Mayor Kobayashi has never cottoned to canines. Man's best friend? Pish. More like an annoying coworker. Yes, they have their uses. They're good for a swift kick. Some Asian cultures think they make for fine eating. And they can even do a reasonably good job protecting little boys, too. Spots, dedicated guard dog for Kabayashi's 12-year-old ward and nephew, Atari, has proven as much.

But when the mutts of Megasaki are struck with the triple whammy of dog flu, snout fever and some rabbit-like reproduction tendencies, Kobayashi sees his chance: Henceforth, all dogs shall be shipped off to Trash Island (an island just off the coast serves as the city's refuge for refuse) and be left to fend for themselves.

The first to go? Atari's protective pooch. He's shipped to the island in a military-grade kennel. Alas, no one bothered to unlock the door.

Soon the island is filled with scads of feral fidos forced to adapt to their new, sometimes quite literal dog-eat-dog world: the world of Mad Max where its most precious resource isn't petrol, but kibble. Or The Hunger Games starring four-footed, hairy players who drool a lot (with one named Dogness Everdeen, surely).

Then one day, this dog dystopia receives a new visitor. Human. Short. And, frankly, a terrible airplane pilot. His tiny little craft crashes on Trash Island, witnessed by five dogs: Rex, King, Boss, Duke and Chief.

Chief, a longtime stray, cares not a whit about their new visitor. But the others are curious. They still have fond memories of their former owners, and they'd like to give this new bipedal humanoid a chance. "All in favor of not eating the little pilot say aye!" Rex says. The votes land four to one, so they go investigate, with literal naysayer Chief following reluctantly behind.

When the little pilot comes to, they discover he's on a mission. He's looking for his beloved dog. Spots.

That's right. Atari—nephew of Megasaki's cat-loving mayor—is on the island, hoping against hope to be reunited with his best friend.

Which leaves the dogs with three questions: One, when will Atari's uncle track the boy down? Two, what will he do with the dogs when he does? And three … should we tell the kid about the pile of bones in that military-grade kennel now or later?

Positive Elements

Let me preface this with a caveat: Children should not run away from their guardians, steal airplanes and explore islands filled with trash in the company of strange dogs.

But setting that aside for the moment, I think we should still give Atari credit for the love and dedication he shows here for Spots (who, he and we quickly realize, may not be so dead after all). As Rex says, he's the only owner, out of all of the countless one-time dog owners in Megasaki City, who braved such an attempt.

Most of the dogs—who still seem to really like humans despite their recent experiences—rally behind Atari and his quixotic quest. Only Chief wants to turn his tail to the tyke. "We won't find the dog," he cautions his friends. "But we will die trying."

"Not a bad way to go," Rex counters. The boy proves to be a worthy human, eventually even warming Chief's cold canine heart.

Atari's not the only character to feel that the dogs are being mistreated. Professor Watanabe, Kobayashi's opponent in an upcoming mayoral election, insists that the dogs are being unfairly marginalized and works feverishly to cure their (very real) ailments. ("Whatever happened to man's best friend?" he asks during a speech.) Tracy Walker, a high-school exchange student, spearheads an investigation into Kobayashi's corrupt administration, unleashing the best student journalism the school's ever seen.

The film obviously has deeper things to say, too. The story is meant to be a reflective allegory of sorts, recalling the horrors of concentration camps and the evils of discrimination. And it reminds us all that just as it's unfair to discard all dogs as, literally, trash, we shouldn't do that with groups of people, either.

Spiritual Content

Atari and his pack meet doggie sages Jupiter and Oracle. Oracle, it's said, has visions that foretell the future. (In truth, she just watches TV—a skill not many dogs have—and that has led to talk of a "prophecy" involving Spots.)

When Atari goes missing, Kobayashi asks for the city to pray for his safe return. Atari's last will and testament asks that if Spots "preceded me in the next life," those left behind scatter both of their ashes to the wind. There's a reference to an "act of God."

Sexual Content

Chief becomes smitten with a comely canine named Nutmeg, and is downcast when he hears the lovely lassie may have mated with Felix. She later tells Chief that the rumors aren't true, and says she's not interested in bringing puppies into this dark world of theirs. (But she later suggests she might reconsider.)

Another dog expresses excitement over being an expectant father, and he dotes on his mate. Tracy Walker admits that she has a crush on Atari.

Violent Content

Isle of Dogs contains plenty of animated rumbles, most of which are obscured by cotton-like dust clouds; we sometimes see legs or paws or bits of furniture jut out from the billows. (Think of old-time cartoon fights with Yosemite Sam or Daffy Duck.) The only real instance of violence we actually see is when Chief gnaws on the ear of another dog.

The aftermath is another matter. Indeed, we later glimpse that bloodied ear lying on the ground. "Sheesh, I think he chewed your ear off," a pooch tells his injured pal, shortly before rats make off with the discarded appendage. Chief sports bloody wounds and black eyes after another scuffle. Another dog nearly dies following a tangle with a robotic canine: We see him later with an eye patch, a fake leg and a few other lingering injuries.

Atari's crash-landing leaves him with a rod protruding out of his helmet: When he yanks it out, a tiny bit of blood spurts from the wound before he faints. His leg was injured in the crash, too: He walks with a limp for most of the rest of the movie, and his foot—animated tho' it may be—looks pretty terrible. Audiences witness a gory, if cartoonish, kidney surgery, where we see those organs swapped from one body to another and witness the bloody holes being stitched up. Someone dies from a bit of poisoned food. A eulogistic play ends with someone's fake head being cut off and tumbling to the stage.

A handful of dogs are whisked into an incinerator. (They somehow make it out alive, though their fur is certainly the worse for wear.) One dog shoots exploding teeth out of his mouth, and he uses them to battle robot dogs. We hear rumors of cannibal canines. A pack of pooches at the very end of the island are the survivors of scientific experimentation. Many bear wounds from their experiences, including fake legs, eye patches and scars. Chief sometimes tells others, "I bite," and we hear parts of his backstory that prove the point. Fearsome metallic dogs attack real ones.

When Kobayashi learns that Atari's in the company of dogs, he characterizes Rex, Chief et al. as canine kidnappers, and promises they'll be violently destroyed. We see some explosions. There are references to doggie suicide, including one who hangs himself with his own leash. We hear about other tragic ends, and we see dog bones and skeletons.

[Spoiler Warning] Kobayashi's grim end game is the extermination of all dogs in the region, and he plans to do so via poison gas. The plan literally backfires, and some would-be dog killers find the gas infiltrating their protective suits. (We don't see if this mishap results in death, but we might assume …) A healing vaccine is injected into dogs, and the movie then treats us to a cartoonish, cutaway look at what that drug is doing inside their bodies.

Crude or Profane Language

Two uses of "d--n." We also hear two uses of "b--ch," with one simply referencing a female dog.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Atari and his pups hang out in a cave made completely out of empty sake bottles. When they visit Jupiter and Oracle, Jupiter serves them turpentine brandy. A grieving woman seems to be lost in her drink at a bar. When Tracy Walker visits her there, the teen orders "chocolate milk. Cold."

Other Negative Elements

Dogs fight over a package filled with rotting food and crawling maggots. A dog vomits.

I should mention here Isle of Dogs, which takes place in Japan, has been accused by some of cultural appropriation, with some lambasting either Wes Anderson's caricatured flourishes of Japanese culture or, in some cases, the Texan's audacity to tell a story about Japan at all. I have a difficult time understanding the line between what is, and what isn't, cultural appropriation, so I'll just leave that here for those who may be more aware and sensitive to such matters.

[Spoiler Warning] We learn that Kobayashi and his evil cohorts created the dog flu and snout fever, thus giving them an excuse to boot dogs from their fair, feline-friendly city.

Conclusion

Director Wes Anderson is Hollywood's foremost, most frustrating man-child.

I don't mean that to sound derisive. His movies aren't juvenile. They're not the middle school bathroom hijinks of, say, a Seth McFarlane or the adolescent love of gore of an Eli Roth. No, it's almost as if Anderson, in his movies, is playing in his room, creating an elaborate game of make-believe.

Yes, Anderson's R-rated movies—and that's mostly what he makes—often contain sex and nudity and language. But he glories in intricate, dollhouse-like models and lavish colors and storybook sets. It's what makes Anderson so maddening to review sometimes: His films are weighted down by oodles of problematic content—but often, they also feel crazily, paradoxically innocent.

But every now and then—well, just twice now, once with The Fantastic Mr. Fox and now with Isle of Dogs—Anderson turns his attention away from more adult-oriented fare and crafts what could be cataloged as children's fables. They're actually animated—not just the 3D doodles we're so used to seeing these days, but intricate stop-motion stuff. They feature talking foxes and badgers and, in this case, dogs. They're set up, as most of Anderson's movies are, like a whimsical picture book, complete with chapters and subtitles and quirky asides. And—get this—they're not rated R.

But they're not exactly for children, either.

Sure, Isle of Dogs has some nice messages and a worthy moral. But it also can be sad and kinda disturbing and even tickles tragedy at times. It lobs severed ears and kidney operations, references to suicide and concentration camps at its viewers, be they young or old.

But just reciting a litany of content doesn't fully express why this film might be a difficult one for kids. As whimsical and often delightful as it can be, there's a sadness that permeates it at times, a bleak poignancy.

For instance: As I mentioned in the intro, Spots is the first dog to be taken to Trash Island. They drop his kennel in a pit of trash, and there he sits—his eyes wide and trusting, his tail twitching back and forth. It's as if he's looking for, hoping for, someone to come and unlock his kennel.

We in the audience—even, I think, children in the audience—are well aware of what Spots' fate will be if he can't get free. Someone, later, spells it out: He'll be destined to succumb to hunger and thirst and exposure. But what makes the scene so painful is how desperately lonely he looks. We know how deeply he's been betrayed. Still, he waits for rescue from the same humans who left him.

And then, when Atari comes by the same kennel, finds bones lying at its bottom, pulls out a key and unlocks the door … we feel the loss and betrayal even more.

The film deserves credit for its ability to make us care for these animated animals. But for parents, its effectiveness comes with a caveat: Like Chief, this film bites.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

Voices of Bryan Cranston as Chief; Koyu Rankin as Atari; Edward Norton as Rex; Bob Balaban as King; Bill Murray as Boss; Jeff Goldblum as Duke; Kunichi Nomura as Mayor Kobayashi; Akira Takayama as Major-Domo; Greta Gerwig as Tracy Walker; Frances McDormand as Interpreter Nelson; Akira Ito as Professor Watanabe; Scarlett Johansson as Nutmeg; Harvey Keitel as Gondo; F. Murray Abraham as Jupiter; Yoko Ono as Assistant-Scientist Yoko-ono; Tilda Swinton as Oracle

Director

Wes Anderson ( )

Distributor

Fox Searchlight

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

March 28, 2018

On Video

July 17, 2018

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Paul Asay

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults
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