This charming stop-motion adventure perfectly encapsulates Wes Anderson’s quirky sensibilities, transforming the simple tale of a boy and his dog into a national emergency. Isle of Dogs will captivate younger audiences with its energetic visuals and delight older viewers with its innumerable sly details. Put simply, this is a warm blanket of a film that packs a powerful social message into its enchanting little frame.
Even Anderson’s most strident supporters must concede that his cinematic predilections can be irritating. His symmetrical framing devices, self-conscious dialogue, and whimsical sensibilities make for a ‘style over substance’ approach that can be overwhelming for some viewers (this viewer included). In animation, Anderson has found a medium that augments these stylistic tendencies; a medium in which pure imagination and sentimentality intertwine to break the confines of realism that Anderson so abhors.
The level of subversive creativity on display in Isle of Dogs can’t be understated. Beyond the beautiful visual adornments, from the impressive garbage monument occupied by his canine heroes to the meticulous detail of their fur blowing in the wind, Anderson has created a powerful (though unassuming) sociopolitical statement about the causes and consequences of segregation. Some may be uncomfortable equating racial or ethnic groups to discarded pets, but Anderson’s message resonates on a level beyond biologically or societally imposed boundaries; we are stronger together than we are divided, and we must oppose any voice that suggests otherwise.
The story framing Anderson’s parable is, perhaps, unnecessarily complicated, filled with tales of cat-loving Feudal lords banishing dogs to a trash dump in the middle of a Japan archipelago. Stricken with ‘snout fever,’ a condition which plagues its carrier with “spasmodic nasal expiration,” (or ‘sneezes’ to those outside the medical establishment), the master-less dogs form themselves into hierarchical packs on the so-called “Isle of Dogs.”
Our pack of concern is a self-proclaimed “indoor dog” named Rex (Edward Norton), a gossip hound named Duke (Jeff Goldblum), a former dog food commercial star named King (Bob Balaban), a High School basketball mascot named Boss (Bill Murray), and an unrepentant stray they call Chief (Bryan Cranston).
“I bite,” Chief drolly admits, though his reasons for biting are based more on principle than instinct.
Their daily routine of rumbling with rival dog packs over scraps of toxic garbage is interrupted when a crippled biplane crashes on the island. The tiny pilot, Atari (Koyu Rankin), who just happens to be the distant nephew of the villainous Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), is looking for his dog Spots (Live Schreiber). Of course, our doggie crew is eager to help… except for Chief, who maintains a healthy distance while observing their adventure.
What a delightful adventure it is, filled with dangerous rides on overhead trams, robotic dog assassins, and a tenuous friendship between Atari and the prideful Chief. There isn’t a single wasted moment in Isle of Dogs. Every scene flows with relentless efficiency, creating an almost delirious momentum. You want to stop and regard each oddity – each sarcastic caption or comedic gag – but Anderson refuses to slow down.
Much like 2014’s The LEGO Movie, Isle of Dogs packs every scene with more jokes and throwaway bits than you can possibly consume. We barely spend any time, for instance, with the island’s two repositories of wisdom; an over-sized behemoth named Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) and his puggish sidekick, the Oracle (Tilda Swinton). Hilariously, Oracle’s “visions” are just translations of television news broadcasts. “It could snow tonight,” she sagely predicts.
And then there are the elements of social commentary. Scientists battle isolationist politicians, a plucky instigator named Tracy (Greta Gerwig) practices her daily manifesto, and a media machine unleashes a massive misinformation campaign to demonize dogs for economic and political gain. Injected with Anderson’s trademark whimsy, these subversive elements effortlessly co-mingle with the fundamental glue holding everything together; the inseparable bond between a little boy and his dog. It’s a luxury afforded almost exclusively to animation, where cute cartoon characters are allowed (even expected) to say the darndest things.
Perhaps Anderson’s most subversive political choice is setting his story in a remote, fictitious archipelago off the coast of Japan. Why not set his story, instead, off the coast of Maine, populated by cowed Americans who don’t have the moral courage to come looking for their dogs when the government takes them away?
Yes, there are obvious historical allusions to nuclear detonations (mushroom clouds accompany every crash and explosion) and the inexcusable herding of Japanese-Americans into internment camps during America’s involvement in World War II, but Anderson is really pointing a boney finger at lockstep mentality without explicitly naming names. By doing so, he ensures that Isle of Dogs might influence viewers who would otherwise avoid such overt political messages.
The voice casting is first rate, featuring familiar members of Anderson’s troupe, like Murray (who can now say he’s voiced both an animated cat and dog), Goldblum, and Norton, as well as newcomers like Cranston and Gerwig. Anderson’s artistic staples, like title cards and strategically placed flashbacks, never fail to draw a chuckle. The sporadic use of translators, too, lends unpredictability to this defiantly Japanese production. Sometimes we get ultra-literal translations through an excitable newscaster (Frances McDormand as ‘Interpreter Nelson’) and sometimes we get no translation at all. Luckily, Anderson promises that “all barks have been rendered into English” to prevent any possible confusion.
Mostly, Isle of Dogs just makes you feel good. It’s not a movie designed to elicit laughter. Instead, you spend the entire duration with an immovable grin on your face, emerging out the other side with a renewed sense of optimism for humanity. Anderson mixes politics, adventure, heroism, humor, and sentiment with an unbelievably deft hand. Isle of Dogs is a minor masterpiece that will only improve with repeated viewings. Parents might not even dread hearing it on constant repeat from the backseat of thei car.