For the second time in his career, acclaimed auteur Wes Anderson has ventured into the world of animation. On this occasion, the story is one of his own creation, filled with all the motifs and idiosyncrasies that have long been associated with his filmography. It’s also one of Anderson’s less obscure efforts, which presents a problem for fans of his work.
Two decades into the future, the city of Megasaki, Japan is experiencing an epidemic of canine influenza, afflicting both domestic and stray dogs across the prefecture. In hopes of easing the crisis, and fears for the city’s health, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) issues an executive order outlawing all flu-ridden dogs from Megasaki. Any dog showing flu-like symptoms is to be sent to Trash Island, a literal wasteland located miles from the Japanese mainland.
Several months later, the Mayor’s adopted son Atari (Koyu Rankin) flies to Trash Island in hope of finding his pet dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). After crash-landing his miniature aircraft, he is rescued by a pack of alpha dogs, among them the black-haired, grizzled Chief (Bryan Cranston). Unlike the four other dogs in his pack, Chief isn’t particularly fond of Atari, constantly shunning the boy’s attempts to be friendly. But with some encouragement from the other dogs, he eventually decides to help Atari locate Spots.
Wes Anderson’s first foray into animation was 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book of the same title. Although it only received a lukewarm reception from moviegoers, the stop-motion feature was praised by critics for its witty dialogue, great voice cast and distinct, detailed art style which preferred warmer colours – think reds, oranges and yellows – over a cooler palette. Some even labelled it Anderson’s best work to date, an opinion that this author shares.
Isle of Dogs possesses a very similar style to Fantastic Mr. Fox, to the point where they could be part of a shared universe. The stop-motion animation is highly detailed once again, with the animal figurines being made with hair and neat visual gags every so often – at one point, a mite can be seen crawling through a small dog’s fur. Isle of Dogs also utilises the same colour spectrum as its spiritual predecessor, favouring greys and browns rather than greens or blues, though the latter colour is still visible in one or two scenes.
This being a Wes Anderson feature, it will come as no surprise to learn that oddities abound in Isle of Dogs, with the most peculiar oddities of all being the four other alphas in Chief’s pack – Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and King (Bob Balaban). Even in the face of certain doom, these four dogs will react in the most nonchalant way possible, their deadpan, perfectly-cast voices indicating little signs of urgency. Although not the central focus of the plot, their presence is welcome nonetheless.
Disappointingly, Isle of Dogs is rather subdued for a Wes Anderson picture, at least when compared to the rest of his filmography. While all of his trademarks are present – symmetrical framing, whip panning and so on – one gets the impression that Anderson’s latest effort is a toning-down of his formula, made to appeal to mainstream audiences rather than devotees of his work. As of such, the characters aren’t as quirky, nor as distinct, as those in his other movies, therefore being less memorable.
Despite the director’s submission to the mainstream, it’s gratifying to know that Isle of Dogs still contains a charm, sweetness and gentleness that make it unmistakably his work. Unlike so many animated films, it moves calmly and slowly, allowing time for the viewer to be immersed in its beautifully crafted world. Additionally, the story is quite heartfelt, mostly spent developing the friendship between Chief and Atari, while also slyly hinting at the current political climate.
While not the best film to come from Wes Anderson, Isle of Dogs remains a joyous experience, the kind which only he is capable of producing. Already made distinctive by its stop-motion animation, the film further enchants with a perfect cast, quirky humour and touching story, all demonstrating why Anderson is such an adored figure in the world of cinema.