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.

MOVIE REVIEW: My Little Pony: The Movie

My Little Pony: The Movie (2017)



Going In

Earth ponies and unicorns and pegasi, oh my! My Little Pony: The Movie has arrived and I could not be happier. For most of a year, my pony-obsessed daughter has been looking forward to this film and no matter what I think of it, seeing her excited over a movie brings joy to my soul. This feature-length film is set in the universe of the extremely popular Hasbro-produced television series My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. A dark force threatens Ponyville, and the Mane Six must journey beyond Equestria and get help from new friends to save their home. This movie should be a pretty typical fantasy adventure with lots of comedy, cuteness, and horse puns. I’ll admit that I’ve not watched anywhere near all 163 episodes of the cartoon series, nor am I a brony, but I have seen the show a few times and found it sweet and entertaining. I’m going in with an open mind and expecting to savor the experience of seeing my daughter full of glee. And this film has sea ponies. Sea ponies are cool.



COMING OUT

Well, that was unexpected. Come to find out, My Little Pony: The Movie is actually pretty great. And not just for fans, although I can only assume they will be extremely satisfied as well, but for families unfamiliar with the ponies too. I can genuinely say that I had a wonderful time watching this film.

You wants reasons? I’ve got reasons. To start with, this movie feels like a 1990’s Disney classic. This isn’t a film that deals with current cultural issues directly, but rather focuses primarily on one thing – the power of friendship. To be fair, there’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to life lessons. Friends can accomplish more as a team, and trusting each other and utilizing individual strengths is key. But the presentation is as enjoyable as ever and the message still hits home.

Another thing that reminded me of old Disney, and elevated this film considerably, is the music. There are some great new songs and the vocal talents of performers like Sia, Emily Blunt, and Kristin Chenoweth are not wasted. Several of the songs have a strong orchestral component and feel like they could be Broadway stage productions. This was a real bright spot and we found ourselves immediately listening to the soundtrack on the car ride home. In a landscape of animated movies that usually feature over-popified tunes much like you’d find on the radio, MLP: The Movie‘s choice of music stands out as a breath of fresh air.

Another strong aspect of the film is character development. When compared with something like The LEGO Ninjago Movie, which only managed to really give its lead character an arc, MLP: The Movie does a great job of giving four of the Mane (main) Six something to do. One slight criticism is that Fluttershy and Applejack are somewhat lost in the shuffle, but there is enough attention spread out over the rest of the characters that it makes up for that. The newly introduced characters don’t have a lot of screen time, but each is well drawn and enhances the story. An additional plus is that we essentially have a multi-racial cast, all with unique qualities and all working together for the greater good. Hollywood (and Washington) take note.

I’d be lying if I said there weren’t any eye-roll moments, but luckily just a few (one in particular during a joke about cell service that made me cringe). The horse puns are indeed plentiful and hilarious. I laughed a lot and the movie transitions between its emotional beats very well, with the humor never feeling out of place. Also, I now have a favorite pony. Yes… I do.

Verdict

I’ve jokingly poked fun at my daughter for years due to her love for My Little Pony, but now I get it. This colorful, goofy world has a deeper lore than I gave it credit for. It’s beautifully animated and in a different style than anything else on the big screen this year. Friendship matters and My Little Pony: The Movie manages to succeed in telling a familiar story through the use of incredible music and its great cast of characters. I wasn’t prepared to come out of the theater thinking this was fantastic, but here we are. The highest praise I can give may be that I now am anxious to check out the television series and learn more about the world of Equestria. Consider me a convert. If being a brony is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.

Rating:

GUEST OPINION by Ashlyn White (Superfan)

My Little Pony: The Movie was AWESOME in every way. The songs are reminiscent of Broadway musicals, and I’ve been singing and listening to the soundtrack ever since I came out of the theater. I have watched the entire TV series and can say that this movie did a great job keeping consistent with the show. Another strong spot of the movie was the introduction of the characters. When they are all first introduced, even the people who haven’t seen the show (like my dad) were able to understand the different personalities of the Mane Six. All in all, this mane-tastic film is one I will remember for a long time to come.

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.