Film Review – Isle of Dogs
Isle of Dogs
Wes Anderson has one of the most unique visual styles of any filmmaker. His compositions are almost always perfectly symmetrical. The camera is often placed at eye level, with his subjects either facing straight toward us, or perpendicular to the right or left. His sets and locations incorporate an aesthetic we are familiar with, but with a whimsy that separates them from real life. Detractors point to this approach as lending to an artificiality in his work. Advocates would say that it shows us the world from his own unique perspective.
Anderson’s heightened sense of visual construction works perfectly in the world of stop motion animation. In a realm where artificiality is obvious is where Anderson seems the most free to explore his creative tendencies. Just as he did in his previous foray into stop motion, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), his latest release – Isle of Dogs (2018) – has such a wonderful sense of world building that the minute details pop out with vibrancy. We’re taken to a near future world of Japan, but it’s a place that Anderson has built inside a diorama. From the buildings, mountains, vehicles, and characters, everything looks like it was hand stitched. We get a feeling that Anderson is just off camera, giggling to himself like a kid playing with their toy train set.
In the city of Megasaki, an outbreak of canine flu has caused widespread panic. Already overpopulated with dogs, many believe that the disease could lead toward a human health crisis. With the leadership of Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), a law was passed that made it illegal to own a dog. All dogs were then banished to Trash Island along with all the other waste sent from the city. However, months later Kobayashi’s young nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin) has travelled to Trash Island on his own to find his canine friend, Spots (Liev Schreiber). Joining a pack of dogs – Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and Chief (Bryan Cranston) – Atari takes an odyssey throughout Trash Island just as Kobayashi intensifies his mission to exterminate all dogs from existence.
That plot synopsis is only a sampling of how much is going on in Isle of Dogs. Anderson – who again writes and directs – packs so much into his narrative that it might be a detriment. You can view this as a tale of a boy looking for his dog, but you could also examine the themes of propaganda in how Kobayashi uses his political power to inject fear into the public. There are also a number of other, smaller story arcs. We get a slight romance between Chief and the show dog Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson). There’s also the investigation by American exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) in an effort to expose Kobayashi’s corruption. Anderson develops an extensive back story between dogs and Kobayashi’s family, setting the reasons behind his disdain for them. By the time we get to the robotic army of dogs we start to wonder if, just maybe, there’s a little too much going on here.
But for how dense this is, it doesn’t take away how much fun it is to watch. This may be one of Anderson’s most joyous films, filled with a ton of laughs and plenty of heart. We’re most drawn into Chief’s character arc. Where the other dogs were domesticated and abandoned, Chief is a stray, never having a place to call home or a human to have as a master. He spends much of the first half detached from the rest of the pack. But through his interaction with Atari – seeing how a human and a dog can connect – Chief’s hardened shell starts to soften. He finds a purpose with Atari and becomes so invested that it’s almost as though Spots was a friend of his own. Bryan Cranston’s voice work is suited for the character – he can utilize his lower register to sound menacing, but then fill it with melancholy to tug at our heartstrings.
Anderson has such an inventive spirit that we scratch our heads wondering how he comes up with all of this. Although there are many Japanese characters that speak only in Japanese (including Atari), we get little to no subtitles. Instead, we break through the language barrier with the use of on screen interpreters (like news journalists or radio announcers). Although the main action is done through stop motion, Anderson has fun by differentiating video footage through hand drawn animation. A character would video record something happening (in stop motion), and then when that footage is played back it’s shown in hand drawn animation. And in scenes where characters engage in a physical brawl, instead of showing the actual violence Anderson disguises it under a puff of smoke (a continuous site gag). These moments may not be much viewed on their own, but when bundled together they create a texture that is a pleasure to take in. This is one of those occasions where describing it to you in words may not be sufficient – you have to see it to truly understand.
When I first heard about Isle of Dogs, I wondered how Anderson would handle making it. This is a white American telling a story steeped in Japanese culture. Luckily, my reservations were relieved. Anderson never condescends toward any of the characters or ridicules the cultural differences between them. He has a love and respect for everything we see – even the villains are portrayed with reverence. Wes Anderson just seems to get better the further his career has gone on. With Isle of Dogs, we see him operating at his most carefree.