Wes Anderson's ninth feature film, the delirious and heartwarming Isle of Dogs, sees the director maintaining a hot streak initiated by his first foray into stop-motion animation, 2009's excellent Fantastic Mr. Fox. After a mid-career sink into bitter, frustrating films about sad and unapproachable man-children, Anderson course-corrected with Mr. Fox and has since continued to use his peerless imaginative powers for good.
His second stop-motion adventure is no exception: On the surface, Isle of Dogs is a moving, funny and hallucinatory tale about the unbreakable bond between humans and our canine counterparts. But like most of Anderson's best films, Dogs is also blessed with an endless pool of visual gags, sardonic humor and his typically meticulous production design.
The story's main conceit is so simple and viscerally tender that you certainly don't need to be a dog lover to relate. The clearly evil Mayor Kobayashi of Japan's fictional Megasaki City has decreed that all dogs be deported to a remote trash island after mass outbreaks of canine illnesses and overpopulation. The mayor's young nephew, Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin), hijacks a small airplane, determined to fly to the newly coined Isle of Dogs to find Spots, a dog that acted as his dedicated bodyguard and closest companion.
After a crash landing leaves him injured and seemingly stranded on the titular island, Atari meets and befriends a ragtag gang of five scruffy canine expatriates. Four of his new friends were one-time house pets, voiced by Anderson veterans Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Bob Balaban. The group's stubborn leader, Chief (Bryan Cranston), is reluctant to fraternize with the boy, but he eventually succumbs as the group agrees to help Atari find Spots.
While the setup is initially straightforward, Anderson packs several major plot twists, action set pieces and wonderful new characters into the film's 101 minutes. The script is heavily dosed with his trademark deadpan humor, and introduces countless lovable dogs, voiced by the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Liev Schreiber, Tilda Swinton and an unforgettable Harvey Keitel.
As endearing as the story are the handcrafted stop-motion models used in the production. Every pup has a truly impressive amount of detail and character built in, from both art direction and screenwriting standpoints. Most notably, Chief is written with a graceful balance of contempt and heart, enhanced by memorable character design and Cranston's impressive vocal abilities.
Worth mentioning is a not-so-subtle political overtone that is oddly pertinent in our messy and oft-frightening social climate. Without giving too much away, the story finds a way to concern itself with government conspiracies, voter fraud and legislative corruption. Even the movie's biggest plot detail — the deportation of mass amounts of (furry) citizens deemed undesirable by government forces — manages to establish an unsettling political vibe that's shocking not only for an Anderson film, but also for an animated movie about cute dogs.
Isle of Dogs has also been at the center of a fascinating debate surrounding its appropriation of Japanese culture, language and motifs. The conversation is not entirely unwarranted, and some of Anderson's decisions are distractingly tone deaf. The Japanese-speaking characters, who make up a vast majority of the humans in the film, are not given subtitles, which further instills that we're seeing this story from the dogs' point of view. Only occasional on-screen translations from a bilingual telecaster (Frances McDormand) provide insight into what the citizens of Megasaki City are saying, and while visual cues generally get the job done, it means the Japanese characters sometimes sway into the "prop" category.
More potentially troubling is the movie's use of an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig). There has been outcry that her character is a white savior, but it's not entirely applicable here. The movie makes it pretty clear that the real champion of the human portion of the story is Japanese, even if the focus on a white hero is bewilderingly unnecessary in a movie that takes place in Japan.
To give Anderson the benefit of the doubt, he seems genuinely obsessed with paying homage to Japanese cinema more so than using Japan as a backdrop for a white story. His affection for the films of legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, in particular, is apparent: There are sly nods to Kurosawa's High and Low and repeated musical cues from his masterpiece Seven Samurai.
Isle of Dogs is not a traditional kids movie, and its PG-13 rating is appropriate and earned. The script teeters between adult bleakness and cartoonish crowd pleasing in a way that sets it apart from, say, Fantastic Mr. Fox and its consistent kid-friendly zaniness. Dogs is by no means a dreary or frightening movie, but it does maintain a palpable darkness that will likely be off-putting for younger audiences.
For burgeoning film buffs, however, this is a must-see. It's a masterclass in set design, tight scripting and virtually flawless photography. Anderson's obsessions with center framing and visual symmetry are alive and well, and here they produce captivating eye candy. Shots of Megasaki City are particularly gorgeous: The miniature models used are detailed and wistfully nostalgic, despite the film taking place in an arguably dystopian future time.
With Dogs, Anderson has delivered a treat for movie geeks and animal lovers alike. His undying imagination is hard at work in every frame, his affection for the characters present in every story beat. Technically impressive, emotionally cathartic and absolutely adorable, Isle of Dogs satisfies every pleasure center that it can get its paws on. ♦