Isle Of Dogs | Wes Anderson | March 23, 2018
Say Isle of Dogs repeatedly fast enough and it begins to sound like “I Love Dogs”. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the latest stop-motion animated adventure from director Wes Anderson is in many ways a love letter to everyone’s favorite four-legged creature.
But there’s anything but love for dogs in the film’s setting of futuristic Japan, as Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), a descendant of a cat-loving family dynasty, has put forth a quarantine of all dogs due to overpopulation and an outbreak of “Snout-Fever” threatening the health of the public, or so they’re told. There are some surprising political and authoritarian commentaries worked into the screenplay written by Anderson (with additional story credits to Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura). All of this is hilariously explained in the cleverly staged illustrations and introductions that open the film. It’s the sort of world-building that only Anderson could muster up the courage to pull off.
All the exiled dogs are sent off to spend the rest of their days quarantined on Trash Island, a literal garbage dump that becomes their new home – the Isle of Dogs. The cold-hearted Mayor makes a statement by sending Spots, the protective bodyguard dog of his orphaned 12-year-old nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin). This doesn’t sit well with young Atari, who desperately sets off to the Isle of Dogs in a prop plane to find his beloved four-legged friend.
Before we meet Atari, Anderson spends time with just the dogs that inhabit the island, allowing the audience to become fully immersed in their world. It’s the dogs who speak English and, just like us, they struggle to understand Japanese. Leading the pack of dogs is the bitter stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), a dog who never quite gels with the rest of his group because of his lonely and traumatic history. The rest of the gang includes leader wannabe Rex (Edward Norton), former mascot Boss (Bill Murray), the gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and former treat icon King (Bob Balaban). Anderson revels in painting their world with enough dark humor to combat the rather bleak situation that we find these lovable creatures in. We are well-acquainted with them by the time Atari crash-lands into their world and lives and begins their journey of changing history.
As one would expect, Isle of Dogs is a gorgeous cinematic achievement wonderfully brought to fruition by both Anderson and cinematographer Tristan Oliver. Just like his previous stop-motion animated effort Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson transforms this animated world into one that only he ever could. The Japanese landscape is given the full Anderson aesthetic treatment and the dogs are brought to life in the loving manner that you expect. It’s the sort of singular vision that could only be fully realized by an auteur such as Anderson. Every line of dialogue has that familiar Anderson charm that is every bit as warm and familiar as it is quirky and very much in its own universe. There are odes to classic Japanese cinema, most notably works from Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki and a fitting drum-led score from the always-game composer Alexandre Desplat.
There’s some deliciously dark humor at hand, which has fun with the pretty bleak elements that surround these dogs. This helps offset the more weighty political elements at hand that offer some light commentary on the medical and political landscape, but never in a way that feels overwrought or hamfisted.
It probably won’t come as a shock that the story and time spent with the humans in Japan isn’t nearly as fascinating as with the dogs. But considering the voice cast that Anderson has assembled, it’s no wonder why. Cranston, Norton, Murray, Goldblum, and Balaban are pitch-perfect as the pack of dogs and, aside from Cranston, these are all the usual players in Anderson’s repertoire and they know how to perfectly articulate his poetry to give the performance that each role calls for. Also joining the voice cast is Scarlett Johansson as Nutmeg as a former show dog who develops an interesting relationship with Chief, Greta Gerwig as a curious foreign exchange student who wants to assist Atari, Frances McDormand as an interpreter who literally helps assist the audience with Japanese translations, and Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, and Tilda Swinton as three knowledgeable dogs.
Even though so much of this reads as familiar territory for Anderson, there’s also something about Isle of Dogs that feels different than his other work. In terms of editing and pacing, Anderson and editors Ralph Foster and Edward Bursch work this in a way that has a different kinetic energy than what we’re used to seeing, sometimes to a fault. The film lags a bit when we focus back to the humans, but by the time the focus returns to the dogs, the film noticeably picks back up and you’re left in sheer awe by the magic that Anderson and company have once again summoned up.
A Wes Anderson film is practically becoming its own genre. You probably already know whether you’re going to love or hate this depending on where you stand with the director. But with the topic of dogs and the beautiful animated that is provided, there is a chance for Isle of Dogs to have an even broader appeal to those who normally aren’t fond of the director. This was a pure delight from start to finish that reminds us of how lucky we are to have such a singular artist such as Anderson who finds a new reach of originality that proves the director is still very much in his prime, which is unbelievable to think about.