The premise of Isle of Dogs is as bizarre as it looks. Much like his 2009 hit Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson returns to his eccentric penchant for stop-motion animals fighting and blowing things up.
In Megasaki, a fictional Japanese city, a boy named Atari builds a plane and crash lands on Trash Island, where the city’s dogs have been exiled due to an outbreak of “snout fever.” He is looking for his beloved canine, Spots (Liev Schreiber). Among the dogs is the toughest pack of pooches inhabiting this desolate place, led by Chief (Bryan Cranston) and featuring Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and Boss (Bill Murray). The slightly fascist (and Citizen Kane-like) mayor Kobayashi is plotting to be permanently rid of dogs, in favor of (what else?) cats.
Isle of Dogs is perhaps his most visually appealing film yet. The title sequence alone, complete with Japanese and English credits, is a delight for the eyes. I would have been satisfied walking out then and there. But the rest of film is full of surprises, including ancient Japanese legends, cyborg hounds, and a fortune-telling pug voiced by Tilda Swinton.
Wes Anderson is able to have complete control as a director with the stop-motion technique, which is possibly why he returned to the medium. Anderson is known for his fastidiousness, as if his movies were perfect three-piece suits without so much as a loose thread to be seen. But for all this visual precision and perfection, an emotional core is missing. The movie captures the love between a boy and his loyal dog, but it’s not quite compelling enough to carry the entire story.
However, Isle of Dogs is a refreshing departure from Anderson’s generally European-centric films. It’s full of hints and references to classic Japanese cinema — the music, by Alexandre Desplat (The King’s Speech, The Shape of Water, The Danish Girl, The Grand Budapest Hotel), with its ominous humming and traditional Taiko drumming, is reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s soundtracks for films like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo.
Anderson, being the ultimate art film director, would naturally be in love with Japan’s rich cinema history. He honors Japanese culture by filling the picture with Japanese actors (Koyu Rankin as Atari, Konichi Nomura as Kobayashi, and even Yoko Ono as a scientist) speaking in their native tongue, and translated by typing machine, interpreter Nelson (Frances McDormand), or foreign exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig).
And, perhaps most importantly, Isle of Dogs is a charming tale about man’s relationship with dogs. Even the title, when spoken out loud, sounds like “I love dogs”. In a world of dictatorship, mad science, regular dogs fighting robot dogs in a puff of cotton ball dust, Atari can always count on his best friend, Spots.
[Photo courtesy of IMDB].