Isle of Dogs Review
Wes Anderson’s latest, Isle of Dogs, is worth seeing, an exactingly, fastidiously composed stop-motion venture. This is Anderson’s second stop-motion animation feature, following 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, a film I thoroughly loved. Isle of Dogs is set 20 years in the future, in the fictional Japanese metropolis of Megasaki City. The city is run by the authoritarian mayor (voiced by Kunichi Nomura, who receives story credit alongside Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Anderson). The mayor, the latest in the long, cat-loving Kobayashi dynasty, has banished all dogs to Trash Island. The mayor accomplishes this through fear-mongering, using a possibly fatal case of “dog flu” as a scapegoat.
Spots (Liev Schreiber), the loyal guard dog of the mayor’s 12-year-old ward, Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), is the first to be exiled. Many other dogs follow. Anderson’s interests lie primarily in a ragtag group of former pets and their leader, the stray Chief (Bryan Cranston). Jeff Goldblum voices the resident gossip, Duke. Bill Murray lends his dry distinction to the baseball mascot, Boss. Bob Balaban and Edward Norton portray King and Rex, respectively.
When Atari hijacks an airplane and absconds to Trash Island in search of Spots, Rex and the other pets assist. Chief, however, follows along begrudgingly. Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, scientists are close to perfecting a cure for the dog flu. However, this does not suit the mayor’s agenda, leading to the house arrest and assassination of the lead scientist. This attempt to cover up the mayor’s plot prompts foreign exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig) to investigate. Three taiko drummers pop up sporadically for brief interludes, bolstered by Alexandre Desplat’s Japanese-influenced score.
Some of the acknowledged reference points for Isle of Dogs include Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai; the Rankin-Bass television specials; and (less so) the melancholic fantasies of Hayao Miyazaki. The Kobayashi palace resembles Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. Filmed over two painstaking years in London (where he shot Fantastic Mr. Fox), Anderson managed to assemble a tiptop collection of artists for this venture. Production designers Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod; art director Curt Enderle; and puppetmaster Andy Gent all lend their talents to Anderson’s vision. The amount of time that must have gone into making a flea run through the wind-tousled fur of the dogs makes me smile in admiration.
Several critics have already called out the perceived cultural appropriation going on in Isle of Dogs. Personally, I felt that this film came from a place of respect and did not smack of appropriation. I didn’t perceive the lack of Japanese to English translation as a cloak of “otherness” over the Japanese characters. Rather, I found it to be a narrative device that focused the story on the canine characters. That said, I can understand how one would perceive this as a marginalization of the Japanese characters in a Japanese setting, which is definitely problematic. All in all, I’m glad the appropriation conversation is an ongoing one.
In the end, Isle of Dogs is a worthwhile film, and I recommend seeking it out. I found it to be Anderson at his best: visually stunning, clever, and filled with his signature deadpan wit. About midway through the film, the dogs hold a meeting in a cave made of discarded sake bottles. The dogs discuss their hunt for Spots in silhouette, framed against the multicolored glass of the cave. This was easily my favorite shot in the entire film; it was just beautiful. Furthermore, the scene with Chief and Atari in an abandoned theme park brought a tear to my eye. And to me, that’s Anderson in a nutshell: beautiful and emotionally stirring.