Who would’ve thought that Wes Anderson would write and direct a dystopian adventure film? I certainly wouldn’t have believed it. Isle of Dogs, aside from a clever oronym, is another excellent entry into Anderson’s filmography. It shows versatility to his style that may be much to the surprise of people familiar with his work.
Twenty years from now (or whenever you watch the film), the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki is ruled by a back-door authoritarian by the name of Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura). He hates dogs. The dog population of Megasaki also happens to be unusually high. After an outbreak of dog-flu, Kobayashi jumps on the chance to be rid of them entirely. He exiles all dogs to Trash Island – starting with Spots (Liev Schreiber), the guard dog of his ward and distant nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin). Atari loves dogs. He loves them so much, in fact, that despite the danger posed by an island of trash populated by disease-ridden and long-isolated canines, he decides to hijack a small plane to retrieve his. Accompanied on his arrival by Rex (Edwards Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and Chief (Bryan Cranston) he embarks on his perilous journey across the sprawling archipelago.
It’s always good to see a director who is continuously evolving and improving on his previous efforts. This may be the closest Anderson will come to making a modern blockbuster, with the film’s scale extending far beyond anything yet attempted by the director. The indie, talk-fest, comic-dramas he’s known for don’t even come close to Isle of Dogs in scope. However, there’s no way this film could be pulled off quite by anyone else without it falling into cartoon shlock. The story is, at its core, fairly simple; but Anderson weaves in political commentary and satire, and a serious look at the function of socialisation. But don’t let that turn you off. It is also playful, highly engaging, and, at times, genuinely emotional.
Anderson’s distinct visual flair is perhaps at its sharpest in this film. That flair exists undistracted via his clever decision to eschew subtitles in favour of in-universe translations for a large portion of the Japanese spoken. The Anderson standards of symmetrical framing, visual gags, and dense mise-en-scene are wholly assisted by the medium of stop-motion. It allows him to be almost unencumbered by the physical reality of actors and sets, making for incredible visual precision (along with some truly impressive science-fiction settings). His dialogue is also typically sharp, possessing a humour that goes almost unnoticeed in the sometimes-wordy script.
The excellently-performed characters all feel distinct while maintaining the mannerisms found in an Anderson film. The soundtrack is not only good, evoking something of the atmosphere of Akira Kurosawa (an openly-admitted inspiration), but plays an important role in the development of some of the characters.
An important note is that, looking past the PG rating and the fact that it’s an animated movie with talking dogs, this is not one for kids. On top of some heavy themes that go well over children’s heads, the film doesn’t shy away from violence. This is not to its detriment for an older viewer, however. The themes allow you to take the film seriously, despite the veneer of a children’s animation.
Anyone who saw Fantastic Mr. Fox may recognise a lot of the same elements in this film, though Anderson takes them one step further this time around. Despite his reputation as an unusually divisive filmmaker, this is Anderson at his most accessible without sacrificing anything of his distinct style.