Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
Wes Anderson has a very petite style of filmmaking: in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” if you couldn’t keep up with the plot, he didn’t slow down to make sure you did. For “Rushmore” he introduced characters onto the screen for maybe five minutes and it felt like we’d known them for years. While the maestro certainly has a trademark, his first stop motion animated flick, an outrageously funny “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” proved his imagination was no joke (not talking about Roald Dahl’s book of the same name, I mean the way Anderson conceived the story for the screen.) While his latest dive into this style of animation, “Isle of Dogs” doesn’t quite match the sheer tenacity that “Fox” did, there's still some intrepidly gorgeous landscapes, slickly divisive characters and plenty of Anderson’s style of humor to make this film go down very smoothly.
Taking his influence from Japanese cinema - (I spotted about a dozen references to acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa) - Anderson has invented a fictional world called Megasaki City, and he certainly has something to say about the parallels with how the world maybe going into the dump. It’s an achievement in itself taking a look around at all the scenery and noticing every last detail not just mirrored in the surroundings, but the people too.
Set in “the age before obedience” we are briefed in an opening prologue that a flu epidemic has taken over the city and canine saturation levels are at peak numbers. Why or how this flu came to be is unclear, and, for the matter, not that crucial of an arch. Basically: dogs are getting sick with various degrees of illnesses and instead of treating them, a ruthless dictator named Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) signs a decree stating all dogs must be exiled. If you thought Megasaki City was intricate to view, wait until you see Trash Island: the place where man’s best friend ends up. In these early scenes, Anderson blends slick style 2D animation sequences (like the news broadcasts you’ll see via their TV sets) with the visceral open world of Trash Island.
But it’s not an Anderson film unless his characters directly talk to the camera, and that’s what happens when we meet a squad of canine rejects, that have banded together in order to survive. Each with their own varying personalities, which in tune make them unique. Anderson regular Edward Norton plays Rex, a pup that came from a devoted and loving family, who always made sure his spot next to the space heater was in pristine condition. Next is Bill Murray’s Boss who gladly tells of his days as a “mascot for an undefeated senior high school baseball team.” King (voiced by Bob Balaban) used to be an actor for dog food commercials but now states “look at me? I couldn’t get an audition.” Duke (Jeff Goldblum) is the residential gossip master: every time he pops on the screen his first lines start in some variation with “hey did you hear about this..” and each time I would burst into laughter.
These are very civilized dogs, often voting for where to go or what to eat, or rationalizing their own behavior. They are, more or less, under the leadership of Bryan Cranston’s Chief which Anderson couldn’t have casted the role more perfectly. Cranston truly embodies the tone and attitude of this damaged stray, that doesn’t “play fetch” and will bite you at a moments notice. Watching this character grow throughout the course of the film is easily a highlight.
Alas, their are other subplots and characters that infuse Anderson’s wild antics, but the main crux finds a small boy named Atari, (Koyu Rankin) the nephew to the towering Mayor Kobayashi, crash landing on Trash Island trying to locate his lost dog Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber) who is also referred to as “Dog Zero” because he was the first one to be exiled. It’s a classic story of a boy who wants to find his dog.
Anderson's script is jammed packed with liveliness and wit, but some storylines almost feel misguided. In particular a subplot with an American foreign exchange student named Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) and her rangy clad of peers that run the school’s newspaper. Her investigative journalism tactics seemed to halt the action rather than progress it. Why Anderson choose to put so much energy into this scenario, is beside me. Because in other scenes he introduces characters (like Tilda Swinton as an oracle pug that sounds exactly as it should) that don’t chew up so much runtime, and are far more intriguing.
The film is broken up into four parts altogether, and we’re told at the beginning that characters would speak in their native language without subtitles, unless of course otherwise interpreted (see if you can spot Frances McDormand doing just that.) But, in true Anderson fashion, the cue card than reads “the dogs barks have been translated to English.” As if we’re so fortunate.
Other notable accolades for longtime Anderson collaborator Alexandre Desplat are in order, whose traditional Japanese style underscoring is brilliant (I swear he gets better with every movie he does.) And to those animators who have to meticulously move these figures on screen one inch at a time, to create the perfect frame. We can literally see the fur move on the dogs as they’re being handled, which only adds to the novelty.
It’s those small and minor details that truly make “Isle of Dogs” a whimsical force of nature. A treat for those who adore Anderson films, and those who maybe do not. If you have or had a pup, I think you’ll be able to relate. Because the writing and style of the picture makes sure that, even when the going gets tough, every dog still has their day.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent images
Runtime: 1 hour and 41 minutes