To watch a Wes Anderson film is like imagining the book you’re currently reading is real life. Novel story-telling with flawed characters that are beautifully absurd and surprisingly poignant. His newest venture, The Isle of Dogs, is no different and reads like a loving homage to Akira Kurosawa in the quirky, pastel color palette way Anderson seems to look at life. With just a dash of that classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer stop-motion Christmas special.
His ninth film and his second stop-motion film, Isle of Dogs tells the story of a boy’s quest to find his dog. Like every Anderson story to come before it, Isle of Dogs is a layered story that brings out characters in these dogs that engage you in surprisingly deep ways. Building off the metaphor of a stray (Stray Dog… Kurosawa reference #1). The film is set in a futuristic Japanese City where a centuries-old clan of cat worshipers has deported all dogs to an island off the coast, Trash Island. On the island, these characters decided themselves between stray and house pet with the latter being the more civilized. And Anderson engages us as the viewer with Atari, played by young newcomer (and Canadian) Koyu Rankin. Atari himself is considered a stray into the human world, not really fitting in anywhere else.
It’s Atari’s bond with his bodyguard dog, Spots, that is the background of this story. A bond built on the fact these two have no-one other than themselves. And Anderson builds on that with the pack of dogs Atari meets when he crash lands on Trash Island. The strong-willed stray, Chief. And the pampered house pets, Rex, King, Boss, and Duke. Played by Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum. This pack decides to help Atari find Spots and Chief leads this pack across Trash Island (You really should be able to get this Kurosawa reference).
As always with a Wes Anderson film, it’s the characters that make these stories. And despite the fact that these are dogs, Anderson’s brilliant storytelling and direction make them just as engaging as any human. As ensemble pieces go, Anderson handles his characters far better than arguably better and more established directors. He takes us on this journey and we get to know Atari and these dogs. Not one character ever feels forced. And the cast to drive these dogs rival just about any live-action cast for talent. From the aforementioned cast to Greta Gerwing as an English exchange student, Frances McDormand as an Interpreter, Ken Watanabe as a Surgeon, Liev Schrieber as Spots, Fisher Stevens, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, and Tilda Swinton as dogs this pack meets on their journey.
In the credits, Angelica Huston is credited as Mute Poodle.
Scarlett Johansson is in this cast but I wanted to mention the talented actors first for a reason.
No character outshines the other in a Wes Anderson film and Isle of Dogs is no different. You get the feeling that the genuinely good feelings you get when around Anderson infect his cast and crew because all the actors in this film brought a weight to their voices. And that came be said for the villain, Mayor Kobayashi. Played by Kunichi Nomura, one of the writers who worked on the story for Isle of Dogs. Kobayashi, the head of new generation of the evil cat clan is the mayor of this futuristic Japanese City, Megasaki and borrows remarkably from real life (ahem) as he works to discredit his political opponents and deceive the public to pursue his agenda of killing all the dogs in Megasaki. Anderson utilizes his medium well to give an extreme angle and height and power to Kobayashi and slowly takes that away from him as Atari and the dogs fight back.
And it doesn’t matter whether you’re with Kobayashi in Megasaki or Atari and the pack on Trash Island, Anderson truly creates something special with the worlds of Isle of Dogs and the medium of stop-motion. Anderson’s love of monochromatic plays off well with his use of white in fog and dust-up fight clouds. There’s a rich tactile realness to this world that reminds me a lot of the corduroy suits Wes Anderson is known for wearing. The detail in everything truly comes out via stop-motion to the point that the only real negative that I can say about this film that you can miss a surprisingly nuanced performance because of the work in the background, the production design.
Wes Anderson took what he learned from 2009’s masterpiece, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and just ran with it. Utilizing an incredibly underused medium and his own imagination to let his trademark overhead shots, pans really shine. In fact, I was speaking with a friend an hour after the film who was hesitant to see the film because of the stop motion. “An outdated style” was brought up. But the amount of control the master puppeteers have over these characters allows them to create emotions and reactions in these puppets that is so evocative of the talent voicing them.
The Isle of Dogs is more than worth 5 out of 5 stars and is hands down the best film of the year so far and in my top ten for this year. I am begging you not to let the experience of seeing this film in theatres pass you but because it’s not some CGI epic with a superhero in it. There is more skill, more artistry, more heart in Isle of Dogs than almost everything in the box office at the time I’m writing this. See this film and I promise you that you will enjoy this film. You will enjoy the film whether you’re a cat person or a dog person.