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Here’s What Critics Are Saying About Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs

Critics agree Isle of Dogs is a Wes Anderson film through and through.
Isle of Dogs
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs opened the Berlin Film Festival on Thursday, the first reviews are in, and the consensus is: It’s a Wes Anderson movie, all right. The film, about a futuristic Japan in which dogs are quarantined to an island because of a mysterious illness, has several of Anderson’s trademarks, but critics agree that it’s also one of his most daring movies yet, praising the stop-motion animation, voice cast, and political undertones.

Here’s what else reviewers had to say about the film, which doesn’t hit theaters in the U.S. until March 23.

This might be Wes Anderson’s most political film to date.

Jessica Kiang, The Playlist:

Indeed, buried in amongst the surprisingly potent political commentary (the clash between demagogues and experts; the limits of democracy when decisiveness is needed; the value of journalism in the age of propagandist “fake news”) there is a further undercurrent about the value of outsider perspectives, and how much better we are when we blur the lines.

David Rooney, the Hollywood Reporter:

Despite the specificity of its setting, Isle of Dogs is very much a part of Anderson’s eccentric universe; its vibrantly inventive visuals and the refusal of its resourceful heroes to bend to an oppressive authority in many ways recall The Grand Budapest Hotel. In fact, in its rebellious stand against corrupt leaders manipulating the truth in order to spread fear and persecute minorities, the movie has a political undercurrent that feels quite timely.

Scott Mendelson, Forbes:

That this story is set in Japan and that one of the few heroic humans is an American foreign exchange student may stick in the craw just a bit, but the picture doubles as a reminder of a time when America was (at least outwardly) a beacon for immigration and a multicultural melting pot. It is a charming and funny story that doubles as a grim parable for our current grim times.

The voice cast is delightful.

Eric Eisenberg, CinemaBlend:

Of course, it also wouldn’t be a Wes Anderson film without his troupe of regular players – which is a group enhanced by a number of new stars joining the family for Isle of Dogs. The strongest role unquestionably belongs to Bryan Cranston’s Chief, who is supported with a deep backstory, effective arc, and legitimate transformation – and while the other characters aren’t drawn as boldly, they’re still entertainingly well-utilized. Among the main group of dogs, each has their own special affectation that helps them stand out, from Goldblum’s gossip-hungry Duke to Norton’s plan-devising Rex, and while they don’t take over the movie at any given moment, they do make for fantastic background. What’s more, Anderson’s familiarity with each of their voices means that he knows the exact kind of material they can deliver, and the result is laughs from beginning to end.

Jonathan Romney, the Guardian:

Scarlett Johansson also voices Nutmeg, a former show dog who’s tougher than her silky fur suggests. She is Chief’s opposite number in a tentative Lady and the Tramp courtship, but their banter has a hardboiled edge of Bogart and Bacall.

Scott Mendelson, Forbes:

The voice work is terrific, and I’m quite partial to Frances McDormand as the overly empathetic translator. 

The animators’ attention to detail is impressive.

David Ehrlich, IndieWire:

Make no mistake, the animation in this film is a truly stunning achievement. Trash Island might be a gray wasteland—the kind of place the Earth permanently reclaimed after the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami—but it’s crawling with life. Adorable rats scurry across the screen, while the alpaca wool that Anderson’s team used for dog fur bristles and whimpers like the characters grew it themselves.

[…]

At one point, Anderson generously devotes a minute of screen-time to a chef making tiny stop-motion sushi just because he can—every grain of rice needs to be just right, and it is.

Several reviewers raised concerns about cultural appropriation …

Guy Lodge, Variety:

A scattily joined subplot centered on American exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig), who persuades her more compliant Japanese peers to rise up in protest against Kobayashi’s dictatorship, skates a little too close to white-savior territory in a film that some will already have placed on thin ice for its ornate cherry-blossom-picking of Japanese culture and iconography.

David Ehrlich, IndieWire:

On the other hand, it’s very possible that people might not love how a white foreign exchange student voiced by Greta Gerwig ascends to a leadership role, though it’s hardly the only issue with Tracy’s storyline, which feels as short-changed as most of the other sub-plots here.

Tim Robey, the Telegraph:

The leaning on archetypes, some of them questionable, and stylisation across a whole range of Japanese artforms, are manoeuvres certain to get Anderson in hot water once the film is more widely seen, just as The Darjeeling Limited – a much more vacuously touristy exercise – was accused of mishandling race. 

… but most defend the film’s take on Japanese culture.

Jessica Kiang, The Playlist:

And here he creates a fictional city in what might as well be the fictional country of Japanderson — the better to remythologize the myths that Kurosawa, Miyazaki and the whole Godzilla industry so brilliantly exported, and that have clearly intoxicated him so thoroughly. No one could come out of “Isle of Dogs” with a sense of disdain for Japanese culture: Anderson’s Japanophilia is as infectious as snout fever, and peculiarly reverent, without a shred of condescension.

Jonathan Romney, the Guardian:

Visually and thematically, Isle of Dogs is steeped in contemporary Japanese pop culture and futuristic iconography, but it also draws on traditional influences – not least in its witty allusions to Hokusai and other classic art. The result could have come across as shameless cultural tourism, but the film suggests real immersion in Japanese culture and cinema, with Akira Kurosawa’s epics an avowed model. Anderson also plays his linguistic hand subtly and wittily, leaving the Japanese dialogue largely untranslated rather than cater too obviously to the western audience.

Everyone is obsessed with Alexandre Desplat’s score.

Tim Robey, the Telegraph:

Alexandre Desplat’s score, which might be peak Desplat for overall invention, is busy at work being a brilliant synergy of Western and Eastern musical forms. With its battery of taiko drums rattling away ominously, but also a fluty, buoyant finale, it suggests a missing link between Toru Takemitsu (Dodes’ka-den’s legendary composer) and the entirely non-Japanese Henry Mancini. Plus the score adapts – sorry, culturally appropriates – Prokofiev’s Troika from Lieutenant Kije and makes this fit just as well.

Guy Lodge, Variety:

It’s more blatant in Alexandre Desplat’s wonderfully sparse, louring score, which sounds like precisely nothing else the melodically inclined Frenchman has ever composed before — setting the whole film on edge, the soundtrack blends a steady tremble of Taiko drumming with, of all things, the occasional interpolation of Prokofiev’s “Troika.” “Why not?” appears to have been the guiding principle behind much of “Isle of Dogs,” and it serves the film well more often than not.

David Rooney, the Hollywood Reporter:

One of the key elements keeping the action propulsive is a score by Alexandre Desplat unlike anything he’s done before. Virtually every moment is underlaid with music, from pounding taiko drums to gorgeous percussive themes with gentle woodwind elements, its unmistakably Japanese flavor lending a soulful emotional charge to the themes of loyalty, friendship and honor.

Jessica Kiang, The Playlist:

It’s exemplified best by Alexandre Desplat‘s stunning score, which combines traditional Japanese taiko drums in a rolling, rumbling, semi-martial rhythm, with unexpectedly whimsical and inescapably Western-sounding instrumentation – saxophones and clarinets, even a little whistling. Like the film it envelops and rounds out so lushly, the music is a meeting of mutually curious and mutually complementary worlds, and like the proud, resourceful brave and loyal dogs of this ‘Isle,’ even when they’re reunited with their masters and fetching sticks in time-honored tradition, neither is subservient: no one is anyone’s “pet.”

In the end, Isle of Dogs is a must-watch for dog lovers …

Guy Lodge, Variety:

From the top dogs down to Tilda Swinton’s oracle pug — four words that might require explanation in any other filmmaker’s universe — every beast here is characterfully conceived, rendered with rich, tactile manginess, and observed with a loving dogoisseur’s eye for behavioral detail. The imaginative leap from puppet to pup is an easy one to take here: By the time the closing credits waggishly list a previously unheard Anjelica Huston as “Mute Poodle,” we’re inclined to take this lovably mad film at its word.

… and a Wes Anderson film through and through.

David Ehrlich, IndieWire:

The worse things get, the more fantastical Anderson’s films become; the more fantastical Anderson’s films become, the better their style articulates his underlying sincerity. Disorder fuels his imagination, and the staggeringly well-crafted “Isle of Dogs” is nothing if not Anderson’s most imaginative film to date.