Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs
is likely to be the boldest and most polarizing animated film we are likely to get this year. Yes, the movie is a visual feast with its gorgeous and fluid stop motion art style. And like a lot of Anderson's films, the deadpan humor and wordplay is quite strong. But, the movie also has a lot on its mind, including a political undercurrent that will resonate with adult audiences.
In fact, the movie seems to be tailored almost exclusively for adult audiences. Despite the cast of talking dogs, the film contains a lot of Anderson's trademark dark humor, such as an early scene where a dog gets part of his ear bitten off in a fight. It also has his trademark whimsy and light tone, which, combined with the stop motion animation, gives the film an unearthly and almost dream-like quality. Anderson and his team of co-writers (which include Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura) have crafted a simple but emotional story that is filled with hard truths, honest sentiments, and an overall sense of wonder that we seldom get in movies. It's the kind of movie where the imaginative visuals and the world it's set in draw you in, and then you find yourself captivated by not just the look, but also the tone and the dialogue. This is a movie that sucks you in little by little, until you are completely under its spell.
Set 20 years in the future in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki, the story kicks off when the city's cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by screenwriter Kunichi Nomura) is forced to take action when a disease known as "dog flu" sweeps across the canine population, and threatens the human residents. Using fear mongering, he whips the citizens up into a frenzy, and talks them into a plan to gather up all dogs and transport them to far-off Trash Island, a toxic wasteland of garbage and filth where the dogs are forced to fight one another over scraps of moldy food to survive, and basically are sentenced to slowly waste away and die until starvation or their disease consumes them. There are scientists who are working diligently on a cure for the disease, but they are constantly stopped in their progress by Kobayashi and his shady followers, who want the people to rally behind the Mayor and his cause.
The first dog to be sentenced to the island is Spots (Liev Schreiber), who just happens to be the beloved companion of the Mayor's orphaned ward, the 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin). Wanting to stay by his faithful dog's side, the boy constructs a crude plane and flies to the island, where he promptly crash lands and finds himself at the mercy of a pack of once-domesticated dogs who are sympathetic and want to help Atari. The pack of helpful dogs include the leader Rex (Edward Norton), along with former Baseball mascot dog Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Also along for the journey is a stray dog named Chief (Bryan Cranston), who at first wants nothing to do with the child. In fact, his first instinct when he sees the boy crash is to eat him. Unlike the other dogs, Chief has never been one for human companionship. He did have an adopted human family for a short while, but it did not end well for Chief, so he has survived mostly on his own. But through Atari and his search for Spots, Chief slowly learns the value of depending on others and the special relationship between a boy and his dog.
While the simple plot that celebrates the love between humans and canines makes up the main heart of the story, it is also used as a launching point for a variety of subplots which cover a wide range of themes, such as political corruption and using fear to rally voters, a minority rising up and standing against the establishment, and even a touch of satire on technology when robot dogs are created in order to replace the flesh and blood ones that have been discarded. The movie never seems overly busy, despite its tackling of multiple themes, and its large cast of characters. In fact, this is the rare instance where I actually kind of wished the film was longer, as I wanted to know more about some of these characters. Regardless, for the film's 100 minutes, I sat spellbound by the world that the artists have created using puppets and models. There is a lot of detail in the settings and in the dialogue that explains the film's world. Some critics have complained that there is too much detail. But to me, the film's light and fairly jovial tone made everything go down quite easily, and I never felt like I was being bombarded with information.
Isle of Dogs
is a movie that manages to be sophisticated and playful at the same time. It's explained early on that all the humans in the film will speak in Japanese, with subtitles or radio announcers translating what they are saying. Meanwhile, the dogs' "barks" have been translated into English for the sake of the audience. It's a clever touch, and Anderson manages to make it work. The film is also lifted up by its beautiful music score by Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water
), who uses Japanese-infused music and instruments like taiko drums, while also mixing gentle pop tunes when appropriate. I also loved some of the film's funny visual touches, like whenever the dogs get into a fight, they suddenly turn into a cartoon-style cloud of smoke and dust which look like cotton balls. There is a comic sensibility on display that keeps the film grounded in a certain kind of innocence, while never downplaying some of the more mature themes that the film does tackle. Parents be advised, the film is PG-13, and is probably not appropriate for young children, despite the cast made up of talking dogs.
Not only is Isle of Dogs
visually captivating, but it is also enriching and rewarding. It's seldom that we get an animated feature with a love for dialogue, but perhaps it's not surprising here, since Anderson has always been a master at wordplay. This is a great little film, worthy of a repeat viewing not just to catch all the visual touches and gags that you missed, but to also appreciate the work that went into what these puppets and model figures are saying.