Wes Anderson returns with yet another masterfully whimsical cinematic splendor, elevating the stop-motion extravaganza found in ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ to new levels of precision and expertise.
Everyone knows that dog is man’s best friend. They are wonderful companions that work tirelessly to appease and please their masters. They are emotional creatures that mimic (or prey upon, depending on who you ask) our ability for empathy. A dog stays on guard while we simple-minded bipedal homo sapiens snooze away the night. It’s been a close-knit relationship that has been in existence since the dawn of man. It just seems impossible to hate those human-eyed, sweet, balls of fur.
And yet, the world of Wes Anderson’s newest film Isle of Dogs, imagines a world just like that. Set in a dystopian fictional future, Isle of Dogs tells the story of a retrofuturist Japan that is in the throughs of a devastating flu. The carrier and culprit? Our fun-loving, loyal, and energetic canine companions. With the disease threatening to cross over to humans, fear soon grips the small island nation. In an overly bombastic fashion that is not too hard to imagine in today’s topsy-turvy world, the oppressive and corrupt Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) of Megasaki City orders all dogs be banned to Trash Island off the coast of the mainland. Here, dogs roam free among heaps of rubble, rats, and yes, as the name suggests, trash. But a twelve-year-old boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin), who incidentally is also mayor Kobayashi’s nephew and ward after a tragic bullet train accident that left him orphaned, defies all odds and hijacks a plane to fly to Trash Island to save his beloved bodyguard and pet, Spots (Liev Schreiber).
It seems that only Anderson has the cinematic wherewithal to make what is seemingly a horrifying post-apocalyptic world seem whimsical and light-hearted. Perhaps that is the reason that the acclaimed director has returned to stop-motion animation, a technique he last used in the equally playful Fantastic Mr. Fox nearly ten years ago. In that time, Anderson has clearly perfected the clunky animation associated with stop-motion, elevating the Wallace and Grimace-inspired visualization to new heights of expertise. From the seamless movement of the characters to the intricate details of fur, facial expressions, and other immensely complicated tactile materials, Isle of Dogs is without a doubt one of the greatest advancements in stop-motion since it’s first invention more than a hundred years prior.
And it certainly helps to have a supremely talented cast that effortlessly bring the splendid dialogue and charmingly eccentric witticisms to life with a delectable air of charisma and fun. Indeed, the acting prowess that is dotted along Anderson’s map of Megasaki City and Trash Island is immense. From the whiskey-soaked, gravelly voice of Bryan Cranston as Chief and the bohemian intellectualism of Jeff Goldblum as Duke, the Seven Samurai-inspired gang works tirelessly to propel the film’s folktale-inspired energy seamlessly forward. As a result, Anderson relies on scores of wonderfully thought-out voice performances from esteemed actors like Tilda Swinton (as a supremely jovial precognitive pug named Oracle), Harvey Keitel, and F. Murray Abraham to continue this magical folk tale of vivacity and gaiety going. It makes it all the better that Anderson is able to extract immensely provocative and engaging performances while simultaneously ensuring that the actors’ are physically and intrinsically superseded onto these extremely detailed puppets.
The film is perhaps most satisfying to cinephiles for its numerous homages, bordering on pastiche or the imitative. From the more overt references to Akira Kurosawa, Yasujirō Ozu, Seijun Suzuki, and Hayao Miyazaki to the subtle Western and Noir ones in the form of John Sturges, Sergio Leone, and John Huston, Isle of Dogs is perhaps Anderson’s most cinematically obeisance film to date. But while other pastiche-loving directors like Todd Haynes’s ode to Douglas Sirk is melodramatic and timeless, Wes Anderson has instilled his own air of eccentricity on the aesthetics and diegeticism of Japanese cinema, ensuring that it consistently and earnestly remains a Wes Anderson picture (while somehow avoiding his signature tones of brown, tan and orange).
Isle of Dogs may not be Anderson’s most narratively polished film, but it is nonetheless a wildly fun experience that will always keep Anderson fans returning for more and more. Whether it is the seemingly endless little cinematic easter egg references—that alone is a worthwhile reason for a few extra viewings—or the wonderfully charming cast and one-liners, Isle of Dogs is what an ode to dogs and Japanese cinema should look and feel like. It’s almost as if Anderson’s inspirations were standing over his shoulder as he was making this film. Thankfully, they did a great job of guiding his profilmic eye.