Isle of Dogs (Blu-ray Review)

Wes Anderson has built a filmography full of work that could never be mistaken for another filmmaker, and he’s managed to take ambitious chances as well. That said, Isle of Dogs feels like a notable departure from Anderson’s comfort zone. Beyond being another stop-motion animated effort, the use of Japanese culture and a healthy dose of political commentary provide the film with a larger scope. What could have been a simple animated delight focused on the story of a boy and his dog becomes much more layered. Now the film is available on Blu-ray for all to see.



The story is set in a futuristic Japan, which is another way of justifying the Wes Andersonification of the culture and some technology-based ideas. Regardless, all dogs of Japan have been quarantined on a remote island to prevent the spread of canine flu. Young Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) does not take this lying down and decides to act by flying to the island so he can rescue his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). Upon arrival via crash landing, Atari is given help to find his dog by other island canines that include Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and the reluctant Chief (Bryan Cranston).

As you can see from the actors listed, the dogs are all voiced by American actors in a film that leaves room for several Japanese performers, in addition to other Anderson regulars including Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Frances McDormand, and Tilda Swinton. There’s no getting around the qualms that come from this choice. Isle of Dogs is very much an inventive fantasy film that has nothing but respect for Japanese culture and the work of Japanese filmmakers, specifically Akira Kurosawa. However, does the way in which Anderson chooses to pay homage reflect a misunderstanding on the director’s part to make a concept work without seeming as if he’s blindly appropriating culture?

It’s a tricky question that is not given any help by the presence of Greta Gerwig as an American foreign exchange student who plays a key role in unraveling a possible conspiracy involving the island of dogs and Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura). While the film allows the Japanese actors to speak without subtitles (translators and other techniques are utilized in an effort to have our understanding come in an organic way), was it ultimately the right decision to let Anderson craft his typical sort of dialogue in a manner that sounds best coming from the sort of actors he’s used to working with? That already sound condescending, I’m aware, but I think it also speaks to a deeper issue that Isle of Dogs is not above recognizing.

This story is built on a dark premise to better emphasize how good it feels to eventually turn things around. It’s also a timely tale concerning a population believing stories they are told and turning on their friends. There is a parable on display here, but I wouldn’t have guessed Anderson would be one to make one with such social bite. It also makes me wonder how self-aware the filmmaker may be at this point. Isle of Dogs is the director’s ninth film and while he still runs into some of the same issues, such as the depth and presence of his female characters, seeing him utilize his style in a way that has its idiosyncratic charm blended with the ugliness of our current reality is a bold step for him to take.

If Isle of Dogs is one of the more thematically rich films from Anderson, primarily because it’s different from his other features, it also doesn’t stop short of being one of his most imaginative features.  While the dogs are re-located to a hellish trash island, there is true beauty to be found in the Rankin/Bass-style of animation seen here. The cinematography, editing style, and additional mix of hand-drawn animation puts this film in a unique league occupied by few others these days when it comes to feature-length films.

Isle of Dogs is meticulously-crafted, not unlike all of Anderson’s films, but the sort of grim landscapes we see, and its association with violent images and a savaged dog population adds an extra layer to the proceedings. There are exceptional settings on display, which is given plenty of assist by the wonderful characters and humor packed into this story. That in mind, I one again look to the depressing allegory that factors into what we are seeing, making this more than just an adventurous celebration of the relationships we have with man’s best friend.

Anderson has fairly consistently allowed dogs into his worlds, though they’ve never had the best of luck. The Royal Tenenbaums cut down Buckley in his prime. Cody was left behind on an island of pirates in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The kids from Camp Ivanhoe did not do good by their dog during a scuffle in Moonrise Kingdom. One could almost say it’s a cruel joke to let Anderson have a film entirely about the displacement of dogs from an entire country. This is where the film’s visual language comes in handy. It doesn’t take much to make anyone with an appreciation for animals to have an emotional reaction of sorts to dogs with varying levels of temperament. Isle of Dogs makes a lot out of all the different personalities the audience comes across.

There is no shortage of heart in this film. Anderson, once again, goes for a five-act structure, which provides time for flashbacks to properly have us understand the relationship between Atari and Spots. Cranston’s Chief is also a standout character as far as having a dog evolve his worldview based on new discoveries. A prologue also hints at other agendas that will become a factor as the film goes on. It all helps build to reveals and a climax rooted in the affinity people should have for the dogs and humans the audience has traveled with.

While not without a questionable element as far as what the right approach could truly be, I can’t deny being consistently engaged by Anderson’s craft. That’s particularly something to highlight here, as the amount of creativity that goes into building a stop-motion world with such a specific visual stamp means having a team working very hard in an animation format we don’t see enough of. Not hurting at all is the level of fun to be had here. Even with the timely resonance, Isle of Dogs is frequently funny and exciting to watch.

The affection Anderson clearly has for Japan also allows for not only controversial opinions, but a fine depiction of various cultural staples from the viewpoint of a filmmaker who tries to make his idea of kitsch more than just tolerable. Given how much Anderson manages to accomplish with one of his weirder and more elaborate efforts, I’m happy to say I’ve visited this island more than once, and I’ll be glad to return again.



Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1

Clarity/Detail: I’ll just reserve a perfect score for the inevitable Criterion Collection re-release, but Isle of Dogs looks great on Blu-ray. Much like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s use of stop-motion animation has led to a wonderful visual expression of his ideas that is also plenty fitting when it comes to observing all the details that he fills his features with. Even with the typical autumn colors, there is a beautiful and very clear picture to take in throughout. The image is sharp and consistent, with no flaws to speak of, as this is a modern film where precision is key.

Depth: Thanks to the style, you can get a lot from the way characters are spaced. There’s never a feeling of flatness to be concerned with, as Isle of Dogs makes great use of the dimensions these characters occupy.

Black Levels: Black levels are deep and inky. No signs of crush.

Color Reproduction: Colors really pop in this film. The detailed puppet work allows for a great amount of colors to register in the costumes, the fur, the backgrounds, and so much more. It’s a moody film with a lot to work with in this regard.

Flesh Tones: While animated, there’s still plenty to take in as far as facial textures for the puppet work seen here.

Noise/Artifacts: Nothing.



Audio Format(s): English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Descriptive Audio 5.1, French and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, French

Dynamics: The level of sound is fully realized on this disc. A lossless soundtrack does all it needs to here, which is as impressive as it needs to be. The use of music is certainly notable, as it is in all of Anderson’s films. Everything that needs to be heard comes through clearly, without issue to be concerned with.

Low-Frequency Extension: With some adventurous scenes, the LFE channel does get a chance to shine. The drumming also leaves a great impression.

Surround Sound Presentation: This is a center-heavy feature, but the audio is spread across and balanced well enough where necessary.

Dialogue Reproduction: All of the dialogue is heard loud and clear throughout.



The Criterion Collection will likely have everything needed to really round out this Blu-ray section. That said, there are a few short featurettes that provide some levels of fun, given the nature of the project.

Features Include:

  • Promotional Featurettes:
    • Animators (HD, 3:42) – The animators take their time to talk about their work on the film.
    • Cast Interviews (HD, 5:09) – Easily the best feature on this disc, as the cast voices their characters during small interviews for the film. The only wish is that this were much longer.
    • Puppets (HD, 4:03) – A look at all the detailed work needed to bring these characters to life.
    • An Ode to Dogs (HD, 2:00) – A discussion of the film as a tribute to dogs.
    • Megasaki City and Trash Island (HD, 2:59) – A look at the work done to create the unique settings for this film.
    • Weather and Elements (HD, 3:04) – Some discussion of how the environments were created and added to the feature.
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2:30)
  • Gallery (HD) – A series of promotional photos, featuring the cast and characters.
  • Digital HD Copy of the Film
  • DVD Copy of the Film


While the eventual Criterion Collection release will likely find its way to the top of my favorite Blu-ray list of the year, when it actually happens, I’m still plenty pleased with this current release. The film is terrific, which is what I expect from Anderson at this point. Warts and all, it tells a unique story with lots of (possibly misguided) love for Japanese culture. Additionally, the film looks and sounds great on Blu-ray. The handful of extras is fine for now, but still enough to satisfy some. If you’re a fan of man’s best friend, this disc won’t steer you wrong.

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