Isle of Dogs
Meticulously animated feature is a fantastic(al) journey
Isle of Dogs (2018)
Directed by Wes Anderson
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Greta Gerwig, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Frances McDormand
It will come as no surprise to those versed in the film career of Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel) that the indie film auteur’s latest creation, Isle of Dogs, looks and feels like some gorgeous but ridiculously overpriced children’s book discovered by hipster parents in a very trendy boutique in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. Like all of his films, it is nothing if not a meticulously curated work of art.
With 2009’s stop-motion-animated Fantastic Mr. Fox (based loosely on Roald Dahl’s 1970 children’s novel), Anderson’s well-read geek chic aesthetic took an unabashed turn toward the precociously juvenile. Whether Fantastic Mr. Fox and its stylistic/spiritual follow-up, Isle of Dogs, are best suited for actual children or just voguish adults who watch cartoons unironically is up for debate. Given its unique imagery, deadpan humor, playful graphics and melancholy story, this original fable (brainstormed by Anderson and his show biz pals Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura) is likely to charm viewers of all ages—while still alienating a handful of the hoi polloi who just can’t get into the quirky headspace.
Set in the near future Far East, Isle of Dogs takes us to towering Megasaki City where the authoritarian new mayor has issued a decree banning all dogs to an offshore island formerly employed as a trash dump. On the surface this seems like a wise plan of action, given that Japan is in the grips of a troublesome Canine Flu outbreak. But a pre-credit, Kabuki-styled history lesson clues us in to the fact that Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura, the Japanese actor and radio personality who appeared in Lost in Translation and The Grand Budapest Hotel) is actually part of a clandestine, cat-loving clan that has labored for centuries to banish dogs from Japan’s shores.
As the first canine to be exiled to Trash Island, Mayor Kobayashi chooses Spots, the loyal guard dog of his young nephew/ward Atari (newcomer Koyu Rankin). The rest of the prefecture’s dog population follows in short order. Several years later, still brokenhearted over the loss of his beloved pet, Atari summons up the courage to steal a small airplane and motor his way across the water to the Isle of Dogs.
Injured in the inevitable crash, Atari is rescued by a scrappy gang of abandoned dogs. Though Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) still feel a loyalty to humans, their gruff stray dog of a leader, Chief (Bryan Cranston), harbors a strong distrust of people. (“I bite,” he’s fond of warning.) Despite speaking different languages (most of the humans speak in untranslated Japanese, while the dogs “bark” in English), Chief and his pack figure out that Atari is on a quest to locate his long lost pet. What follows is a ragtag trek across the bespoke trash heap of Anderson’s imagination.
Meanwhile, back in Megasaki City, Mayor Kobayashi finds his campaign to eradicate dogs derailed by Atari’s unexpected adventure. He redoubles his nefarious plans, smearing Atari’s reputation in the press and assembling an army of robotic canines to stop him. Our boy Atari gains an unexpected ally, however, in gung-ho foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (actress Greta Gerwig, who just jumped from indie muse to Oscar darling with her writing-directing breakout Lady Bird). While Atari battles the dangers of Trash Island, Tracy rallies support among her fellow students and animal lovers. Will the mayor’s evil machinations be exposed in time to save Japan’s furry friends?
Despite being animated Isle of Dogs is still the unmistakable work of Wes Anderson. Like his past films, it’s got the handcrafted look, the obsessively symmetrical compositions, the muted color palette, the eclectic pop soundtrack (new compositions by Alexandre Desplat, snippets from Akira Kurosawa scores and a major contribution by ’60s psych-rock outfit The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band). They all come together beautifully here, proving that Anderson’s various enthusiasms and infatuations have a common purpose—one that has always been steeped in childhood nostalgia.
Admittedly, there are those who may find Anderson’s appropriation of Japanese culture somewhat less than nuanced. There is no reason, on the surface, why this story should be set in Japan—other than the fact that a tale about abandoned dogs suddenly called up images in Anderson’s mind of the seedier social dramas of Japanese master Akira Kurosawa (Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, Dodes’ka-den, The Lower Depths). Kurosawa’s scruffy aesthetic is undoubtedly what’s fueling Anderson’s creative engines here. Feel free to discuss at length—over third wave, cold-brewed coffee, perhaps—whether Anderson’s miniaturization of Japanese culture (Kabuki theater, taiko drumming, samurai swords) asks audiences to laugh with or at the stereotypes. At the at the end of the day, however, this is a self-consciously cartoonish construction with a handful of one-note bad guys pitted against a bunch of very good dogs. Within its own fantastical world, Isle of Dogs works, delivering humor, emotion and a powerful dose of idiosyncratic style.