MOVIE REVIEW: Isle of Dogs

ISLE OF DOGS (2018)

GOING IN

Wes Anderson is known for his colorful, whimsical style of filmmaking, which has earned him legions of devoted fans. His films are almost always beautiful and can be seen as period pieces, since none of them have ever taken place in the present. Thus far, I’ve only found one of his films to be spectacular, and that is Fantastic Mr. Fox. I do feel that should I revisit his films, I might discover myself enjoying them more because my tastes have changed quite a bit in the past few years and I now highly value the kind of technical precision Anderson employs. What I know about Isle of Dogs: it has unique, gorgeous stop-motion animation, is set in a dystopian sci-fi future, has talking dogs, and revolves around a boy trying to find his lost pet. Consider me highly intrigued.

1 Hour and 41 Minutes Later.

COMING OUT

“Who are we? And who do we want to be?”

These questions, posed by a dog, to other dogs, are the kind of existential nuggets slid into most Anderson films. Here, there is something particularly powerful about them coming from an animated talking pet, as it really drives home the awareness these dogs exhibit throughout the film. Never does Anderson allow us to lose perspective – a dog is an animal and they act accordingly – but this additional layer of thoughtfulness gives them profound human depth, making it all the easier to emotionally resonate with how they feel. It also encourages us to ask the same of ourselves…

At its heart, Isle of Dogs in an adventure story. The film opens with historical background on the Japanese Kobayashi Dynasty (cat lovers) and tells of how dogs once were nearly wiped from the earth, overtaken by cats, but saved by a young samurai boy. Time passes and dogs become the loving pets we know of today, but then mysterious illnesses such as the Dog Flu and Snout Fever begin to appear and spread rapidly amongst the canine population in Megasaki City. Mayor Kobayashi (Kunchi Nomura) decrees that all dogs will be banished to Trash Island in an effort to supposedly keep the city healthy, but of course the feline-loving empire has other reasons as well.

The first dog to be banished is the guard dog Spots (Liev Schreiber), who was assigned to protect Mayor Kobayashi’s young nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin). This sets in motion the primary story events, which revolve around Atari venturing to Trash Island to find his beloved dog, and instead coming across a pack led by Chief (Bryan Cranston), that also includes Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and King (Bob Balaban). As this adventure progresses, Atari and the pack begin to bond, and much is explored about the relationship between man and man’s best friend. Atari never speaks English (and there are no subtitles), but it’s always perfectly clear what he is trying to say. Meanwhile the dogs speak in typical Wes Anderson style, with a dry wit about them, providing most of the movie’s adorable humor. Anderson’s minimalist screenplay really allows the incredible animation and fantastic score to be equally provocative, too. Characters eyes fill with tears on multiple occasions and the sight of it alone is enough to send most viewers reaching for the Kleenex. It’s unsurprising, of course, seeing as how Anderson is known for such detailed work, but at the same time the animation is so mesmerizing that it almost becomes entrancing. There is a style and uniqueness here that not only shows great skill, but really elevates the emotion of the story.

This coming-of-age tale for both boy and dog is also chock full of subtle political and social issues. In a sense the Mayor is deporting an entire race that he seems to hate for no real reason at all, other than he prefers another one. Most of these issues are brought up by Duke in the form of him telling the gang about rumors he’s heard, so while they are effective and can get adults thinking, they’re also woven seamlessly into the narrative in a humorous way. There’s also Tracy (Greta Gerwig), a foreign exchange student who believes a major conspiracy is afoot and is determined to find the truth about Mayor Kobayashi’s actions. Her dedicated efforts may be played for laughs, but she serves as a great character example of what it’s like when someone tries to fight the establishment and challenge what they consider to be poor (or downright evil) leadership.

Isle of Dogs may look and sound like a fun adventure story for kids, but there is some death and there are more complex themes covered. The issues of identity touched on earlier, and how to handle changing responsibilities, are key parts of this story and may go over the head of younger viewers, but they likely will be so enamored with the sweetness of the relationship between the dogs and Atari that they’ll still enjoy it just fine. There are also broken family issues (sometimes between species), as is almost always the case with Wes Anderson films. So, for those who look deeper, Anderson has given plenty to chew on while watching and long afterward.

It’s also important to note the amazing score by Alexandre Desplat. Fresh off winning an Academy Award for his won in The Shape of Water, he once again proves to be a force. Anchored by a traditional Japanese drum-baseline, the music will have you tapping your fingers and whistling all the way home. When Anderson decided to set this story in Japan he smartly brought on writer Kunichi Nomura to help ensure he referenced the culture appropriately, and Desplat’s score seems to fall right in line.

VERDICT

Isle of Dogs is a richly imaginative film, highlighted by playfulness and emotional depth that anyone who owns a dog will easily connect with. It’s drenched in Anderson’s typical style, that is to say technically marvelous, and its brilliant marriage of sly humor, sincerity, and beautiful animation make this an adventure well worth embarking on. It also made this lifelong cat owner want a dog. Well played, Mr. Anderson.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

Episode 101: Tomb Raider

This week we are joined by returning guest Andrew Dyce of Screenrant.com to discuss the latest video game adaptation – TOMB RAIDER. We have a great conversation about the genre’s previous failures and what this movie does to set itself apart.

What We’ve Been Up To – 0:01:14

(Aaron – Hans Zimmer: Live in Prague)
(Patrick – The Brainwashing of my Dad)
(Andrew – Star Wars Rebels, Bob’s Burgers)

Tomb Raider Review – 0:19:15

The Connecting Point – 1:24:23


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MOVIE REVIEW: Tomb Raider

TOMB RAIDER (2018)

GOING IN

I’ve been a gamer for my entire life. When it comes to the action/adventure genre, the Tomb Raider series has always been my favorite. Its focus on exploration and historical discoveries intermingled with myth and legend makes for fascinating stories. In 2013 the series was rebooted with modern gameplay and graphics. That game, simply titled Tomb Raider, is the pinnacle of the series for me, mixing the perfect amount of tomb raiding with an intriguing and emotional narrative. It is that very story which inspires this new film, led by Alicia Vikander, an incredible young actress who is among my favorites. I, like so many gamers, have waited and wanted for a worthy film adaptation of a game. Could this be it? My excitement, and hopes, are sky high.

1 Hour and 58 Minutes Later.

COMING OUT

“All myths have foundation in reality.” 

At its heart, the Tomb Raider video game series has always been about discovery. Sure, it’s evolved over the years to include plenty of gun-firing, arrow-flinging action, but where the series sucked players in was its climbing sequences and tomb exploration. Searching for, and finding, some rare artifact or relic never gets old, no matter how far-fetched the stories about them become. And far-fetched is where the story in the 2013 Tomb Raider game went, focusing largely on Lara fighting to stop a group of people bent on harnessing the supernatural power of the goddess Himiko. This adaptation of that game actually includes elements of its sequel, 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider, as well. And all of the story changes are for the better.

Tomb Raider serves as the origin story of Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander). Instead of starting off with Lara as a globe-trotting treasure hunter, Lara is presented as a young woman who has not emotionally recovered from her father’s disappearance 7 years earlier. Her unwavering hope that he is still alive eventually leads her to discovering information about where he might be, and off she goes to find him. Though the primary plot may focus on whether or not Lara can stop the goddess Himiko from being released, the film’s emotional core rests in the story of a father who left his daughter to protect her, and a daughter who will do anything to save her father. This relationship drives Lara’s actions when confronting the film’s primary villain, Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), a man who even himself just wants to do his job so that he can see his kids. Goggins chews up scenery as the cold-hearted Vogel and plays a great foil to Lara.

Action sequences are hit or miss in the film. At times, the CGI is noticeably wonky during the biggest moments, but in more close-up shots like Lara mowing down guards with a bow and arrow at close range, the action is an adrenaline-pumping rush fueled by Junkie XL’s frenetic score. What works in the film’s favor is how faithfully it always represents a video game perspective. Many scenes are taken straight from the source material and those who have played it will likely find great joy in reliving these. Everything about the film is consistent with it being a game adaptation. In short, the movie feels like the video game in so many way, as well it should.

The other primary area where the film really needed to deliver was in its depiction of puzzle solving/treasure hunting. There are scenes here too that are copied directly from the games the film is based on, and even when they aren’t they feel perfectly placed in the world of Tomb Raider. Lara’s eyes perk up when figuring out clues and her sense of curiosity is evident when she discovers something new for the first time. These are the qualities that make her who she becomes and what could set her off on countless new journeys in the future.

VERDICT

Tomb Raider is a fast-paced, fun, action adventure film. Its adaptation of and improvement on the excellent source material and display of many iconic game moments are a delight to see on screen, and Alicia Vikander’s performance captures the strong-willed and intelligent personality of Lara Croft perfectly. Enhanced by an emotional through-line about the love between a father and daughter, Tomb Raider rises above most of the films in this genre and proves that good video game adaptations can be made. It left this fan relieved, satisfied, and wanting more.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.