Funny, whimsical, heart-breaking, witty, sometimes problematic. That’s right, we’ve got a new Wes Anderson film. This time around Anderson revisits his love of stop-motion animation to bring us the tale of a young boy, his lost dogs and a pack of other dogs who make it their mission to reunite the pair and get into some adventures and hi-jinks along the way. This is the Isle of Dogs.
Isle of Dogs takes place in the not-to-distant future fictional Japanese city of Megasaki. Run by the intimidating Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), Megasaki is in the depths of an epidemic of dog flu and as such the Mayor has decreed that all dogs are to be removed from the city and basically banished to the nearby accurately named Trash Island. It’s revealed that the Kobayashi’s, also a notorious clan of adamant cat lovers, have had a long standing hatred of dogs that causes many a conspiracy theory as to where the dog flu stems from and what Kobayashi’s true purpose may be. Kobayashi himself begins the exile of Megasaki’s dogs by taking his adopted nephew Atari’s (Koyu Rankin) dog Spots (Liev Schreiber) and making it the first dog to be sent away, thus setting up the rest of the film.
From there we jump six months into the future and all dogs are have now been transplanted to Trash Island. Here’s where the film introduces our primary canine companions Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and their reluctant leader Chief (Bryan Cranston). The rag tag gang stumble upon young Atari in a crashed tiny plane that he’s used to come to Trash Island and find his beloved four-legged best friend Spots. From here begins the multi-faceted adventure as Atari and his new gang of companions search for Spot while back in Megasaki a group of scientists led by Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) and Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono (Yoko Ono) along with a growing Pro-Dog resistance begin digging deeper into the truth of what’s really behind the dog flu and the exile it lead to.
At the heart of all of Anderson’s films are broken people, specifically ones dedicating their lives to the search for love and the desire to belong. Isle of Dogs wears those sentiments proudly and manages to nail both as the story progresses. It’s what makes Anderson’s films have this sense of timelessness and make such an impact among his fans and viewers. Applying that brokenness to a pack of discarded dogs and a young boy who’s been snatched away from the only friend he’s ever had can’t help but reel the audience in. You want to go on this journey and you want it to all work out in the end. Along the way there’s wonderful bits of inventive animation with the stop-motion techniques, particularly in a montage of food preparation and anytime bodies of water are around. There’s also that trademark Anderson humor and wit around every corner. All of this is tied wonderfully together by a very percussion heavy score by Alexandre Desplat that I feel is some of the best work of his career.
As much as I love the film in story, style and execution it would be remiss of me to not peek beneath the surface and bring up some cultural aspects that left me feeling a bit…not necessarily mad or angry but more questioning some of the decision making. It’s made very clear that Atari is the first human to even attempt to come find his dog, which doesn’t paint any of the citizens of Megasaki in a remotely favorable light. Then there’s exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) who’s character is fun and whip smart and a go-getter but she sadly falls right into the “white savior” trope that is just beyond tired and is just a bad look when it’s a white guy using another culture to tell that story in the first place. It also seems an odd choice for everyone to speak Japanese except the dogs who not only all speak English but are also all portrayed by white actors. My personal initial read on this was dogs are simple and just not smart enough to speak Japanese but as far as we know these dogs have only ever lived in Japan so it admittedly is an odd choice that I’ve seen others take understandable umbrage with. All that said art is art and no one should be in the business of telling someone what they can and cannot make. By that turn, however, when wading in questionable waters one would hope the creatives that be can embrace an open conversation as to those choices.
Those feelings and criticisms aside, I still absolutely love the film. Yes, it’s true one can be highly critical of something and also still enjoy it. What a concept, eh? For me, Isle of Dogs is yet another high water mark for Director Wes Anderson. Here he’s taken the age-old “boy and his dog” tale and managed to breathe some fresh life into it by wrapping it up in the kind of whimsy and mischief that has become his brand. At the heart of all of Anderson’s films are broken people, specifically ones dedicating their lives to the search for love and the desire to belong. Some truly creative and inventive stop-motion work mixed with charismatic voice acting all around and then sealed with that wonderful Desplat score makes for one of the more enjoyable cinematic experiences one will have at the theater this year.
Out of Five Nerdskulls
Story: 4/Acting: 4/Visuals: 5/Directing: 5
Overall: 4 Nerdskulls
Check out the trailer below:
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