Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson, 2018) 3½ out of 4 stars.
According to Isle of Dogs‘ press notes, the film “began with an unlikely, but potent mix of fascinations shared by [Wes] Anderson and his story collaborators Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura: dogs, the future, garbage dumps, childhood adventures and Japanese movies.” And just like that, we have this odd, compelling stop-motion action-adventure movie that bursts with a creative energy so infectious that you’ll relish getting lost in its labyrinthine plot. Cat lovers, beware, as you are the villains of the piece, but dog lovers, take heart, as all is not as bleak as it first seems. Everyone can rejoice, however, in the wonderful joys of watching inventive imaginations at work. I have by no means loved the totality of director Wes Anderson’s œuvre, but this one’s a keeper.
The time is 20 years from now, and Mayor Kobayashi, of Megasaki (somewhere in Japan), has decided to deport the entirety of the canine population to a nearby island garbage dump known, appropriately enough, as “Trash Island.” The reason? A bout of “snout-fever” is working its way through the dogs of the city, who have bred themselves beyond a sustainable level. This dog-flu could be contained, and even cured, if only the local scientist, Professor Watanabe, would be allowed to administer his vaccine. But sinister forces, led by Kobayashi, refuse to listen, and so the deportations begin, starting with the mayor’s own lead security dog, Spots.
Flash-forward 6 months, and the exile colony is now filled with diseased dogs who make do as best they can: it literally is a dog-eat-dog world. But then a young boy flies over from the mainland, crashing his plane, and some of the dogs remember what it was like to serve a kind human, especially once they learn that the boy is none other than Atari Kobayashi, the mayor’s nephew and ward, come to find Spots. HIs selfless act of bravery inspires the dogs to follow him, which may just result in a revolt by the disgruntled former dog owners of Megasaki. Though we can guess that the film won’t end too tragically, the many details along the way to the somewhat happy conclusion do, in fact, surprise in their complexity (and strangeness) of detail. Isle of Dogs is truly a sui generis work of art, hampered only occasionally by a plot that is can be too elaborate for its own good.
Beautifully animated, the film borrows liberally from the visual stylings of Japanese woodblock prints, live-action cinema and anime, but never feels like a rip-off of either. Indeed, its aesthetic charms are uniquely its own. Some of the choices may strike certain viewers as off-putting, such as having all but one of the humans speak in Japanese (without subtitles), while all the dogs speak in English (and sometimes translate the Japanese for we gaijin). Personally, I loved it, as it forced me to focus on the visuals and wait for what words the director thought were important enough to translate, but if you have low tolerance for hearing a foreign language without immediate interpreting, then this may not work for you. Alternately, you may also find white-man Anderson’s cultural appropriation of Japanese tropes jarring in 2018 (a fair point, though Anderson tends to borrow and appropriate from everyone). Along those lines, a detail that I, myself, did not like so much was the inclusion of an American exchange student (that one English speaker), whose role comes a little too close to that of a traditional white savior, yet she is quirky enough – and by no means the lone hero – that I (somewhat) forgave Anderson and his team for her character (she could just as well have been Japanese without any significant change to the story). So, it’s not a perfect movie, by any means, but nevertheless a fine work of art, problems and all.
Finally, it’s the impressive voice talent that really brings home the puppy treats, featuring, as some of the many dogs, the likes of Bob Balaban, Bryan Cranston, Greta Gerwig, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray, Edward Norton and Tilda Swinton, among others, with co-writer Nomura lending his talents to the role of the evil mayor, and (briefly) Yoko Ono, herself, showing up in a small part. Newcomer Koyu Rankin also turns in a great performance as Atari. All come together to make the audio tapestry as stunning as its graphic counterpart. Most of all, though, Isle of Dogs is just purely delightful entertainment, start to finish, and a beautiful story well told. Pass the dinner dish, please; I’ll take seconds.