Wes Anderson’s brilliance is once again on luminous display. Isle of Dogs, his latest stop-motion animated feature, is an absolute joy to behold. The film dazzles with creativity and dry wit. The director’s unique vision permeates every wonderful, artistic frame. The plot is not as fluid as his masterful The Fantastic Mr. Fox, but is certainly edgier. His genius shows no signs of abating. I can’t even fathom how Wes Anderson dreamed up this concept.
Isle of Dogs takes place twenty years from now in the Japanese city of Megasaki. Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), a tyrant descended from a family of cat loving dog haters, issues a cruel decree. He uses an outbreak of canine flu to banish all dogs from the prefecture. Strays and house dogs are rounded up en masse, then dumped unceremoniously on Trash Island across the sea.
The dogs separate into packs, fighting for survival in the trash wasteland. Their exile is shattered by an unexpected visitor. A little pilot, twelve year old Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), crash lands on Trash Island. He is searching for his beloved security dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). Atari is the ward and distant nephew of the evil mayor. His disappearance causes a massive security response. Atari is rescued by a genteel pack led by former house dog Rex (Edward Norton). But scrappy stray dog Chief (Bryan Cranston), is wary of the boy and his mission. He’s a biter that has never known love, or the deliciousness of puppy snacks.
Isle of Dogs is a high concept film, to say the least. This is not spoon-fed, saccharine sweet, Disney marketing inspired animation. You have to be capable of abstract thought to enjoy the quirks here. The humans are all Japanese except for Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), a foreign exchange student investigating the mayor. They speak Japanese, but are translated, most of the time, by translators. The pooches speak their own language, which is English to us. Anderson uses a narrator (Courtney B. Vance) to navigate the multiple characters and complex plot. There is a lot going on. You have to pay attention to understand. Anderson doesn’t make mindless films. This is why you constantly discover new elements by repeated viewings.
Anderson (Rushmore,Moonrise Kingdom) skillfully crafts a message about exclusion and blame. The dogs in this story can be likened to minorities set upon by a nationalist fervor. A subset of the population is demonized, ostracized, and then targeted as a threat to society. Anderson delivers his parable as a children’s story with a hint of darkness. He’s not preachy or heavy handed. Isle of Dogs is about a boy’s love for his dog, and the unconditional love returned by our furry, canine companions. Cats, of course, are evil and the source of all malaise. Just kidding! Anderson does not demonize felines, but they are on the sidelines in this movie.
Anderson has a troupe of actors that add distinction and color to his work. They are just as funny doing voiceovers. Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, F. Murray Abraham, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, and Tilda Swinton are hilarious as the dogs. Each one has a different gimmick that propels the story. Their sardonic delivery translates perfectly to the stop-motion characters. Murray will have you howling as a pooch who hears a lot of rumors.
Isle of Dogs does run out of steam at points. The animation, visual effects, and trippy mood music are entertaining throughout. The problem is that the plot does run a tad thin while you are mesmerized by artistry. A few scenes seemed like filler, eye-candy not necessary to the story. This is a minor criticism, but valid. Isle of Dogs feels longer than its hour and forty minute runtime. It doesn’t flow as smoothly as The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Anderson could have trimmed ten minutes and had a more concise edit.
Isle of Dogs is a must see for anyone that appreciates good filmmaking and originality. Wes Anderson, once again, has given us something extraordinary. Hollywood rarely deviates from formula. Fox Searchlight Pictures should be commended for funding Isle of Dogs. Just as in their Oscar winner The Shape of Water, the studio is proving to be the place for visionaries.