Do you like Wes Anderson? Then you’ll like Isle of Dogs. It’s got everything we’ve come to expect from the director, who has basically created a genre named after himself. The film is full of his signature symmetrical shots; his stunning mise en scène; the slightly off nostalgia; the same cast of actors; the hipster aesthetics; the deadpan humor and performances; and the subtle, yet effective, relationships. I like Wes Anderson so you can probably guess where this review will go.
Do you not like Wes Anderson? Well, this might actually be the Wes Anderson movie for you. For starters its a story about a boy and his dog, and everyone loves stories about children and their dogs. But the movie also functions as a strange, beautiful, and surprisingly thought-provoking political satire done in a style that only Wes Anderson could deliver.
Isle of Dogs
Director: Wes Anderson
Release Date: March 23, 2018
At its heart, Isle of Dogs is the story of Atari (Koyu Rankin) and his attempt to rescue his dog Spots (Liev Schriber) from an island of trash off the coast of Japan where all dogs have been shipped after a bout of fear mongering by the mayor of Megacity, Kobyashi (Kunichi Nomura), turns the entire populace against every dog. Atari, after crash landing on the island, is joined by a pack of dogs. Chief (Brian Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) all help Atari cross Trash Island to get to Spots. Meanwhile, on the mainland, an evil conspiracy is uncovered, and international student (and school newspaper reporter) Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) begins to uncover the hidden truth behind Kobyashi’s hatred of all dogs.
As you can probably guess, Isle of Dogs is charming as hell. Wes Anderson (we’re contractually obligated to write his entire name) creates a stark, and stunning world for the film to take place in. This near-future world is like some dystopian science fiction out of the 1950s, full of the style and fashion you’d expect out of a Wes Anderson movie — as if a time capsule exploded all over a children’s film. The movie’s Wes Anderson quirks are all over, as title cards pop up, the movie is broken up into chapters, and the film even features every character speaking in their native tongue (dogs speak English, most people speak Japanese).
Most impressive is just how well Wes Anderson’s style fits into this particular film. His signature way of making movies never felt forced into any of his films, but for Isle of Dogs it is more natural than ever. The symmetry of his shots and deadpan performances remind one of traditional Kabuki theater and Japanese artwork. Wes Anderson isn’t unaware of this, opening the film by framing in in a stage-like shrine. The influences don’t stop at traditional Japanese art forms either. Wes Anderson pulls in diverse references, ranging from Citizen Kane to post-WWII Japanese cinema. It’s a tour de force for him this time around.
Part of that stems from Wes Anderson trying something a bit different with his story by making a strange political satire. It’s easy to draw lines from Mayor Kobyashi’s dog-hating rallies and the exile of all dogs to topics of immigration and the fear of the other. There’s a satirical side running through the entire film, commenting on democracy, student activism, disbelief in science, demagogues, hatred, and blind fear. Wes Anderson plays up these real world issues into a comedic film, all while maintaining the charm and wonder of a simple story about a boy and his dog. Like all the best satire and comedy, you can enjoy the film on whatever level you want to.
Even if you didn’t understand one iota of the satire or turned all the sound off, Isle of Dogs would be worth watching. It is visually one of the most stunning films to land this year. In the opening frames it’s easy to see just how many strides the animation team has made since The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which was fantastic looking in its own right. The stop-motion animation is strikingly good, lending the film its own unique look that you won’t see anywhere else.
Speaking of unique, the score is a masterpiece. Alexander Desplat follows up his incredible work on The Shape of Water with a score in a completely different style. It is stunningly powerful, and complimentary to the film at the same time. He uses traditional Japanese taiko drumming throughout the entire film, a bold stroke that reinforces what Wes Anderson is doing with the film.
In the end, though, it’s all Wes Anderson through and through, and so what really stands out is the somehow heartfelt relationships that are constructed throughout the film. In this case it’s between Atari and Chief, two strays trying to find themselves. That quintessential relationship between a boy and his dog is lovingly developed here in Wes Anderson’s deadpan style that seems to pull more emotions out of a person sitting center frame staring at the camera than any tear-jerker teen drama could ever hope. There are quite, beautiful moments scattered throughout this film that just make it work wonders.
That’s what Wes Anderson does best. He somehow recaptures the magic you often forget cinema can truly have. His films play with the medium, and capture something that many directors struggle to do even for a moment. Isle of Dogs is no different, delivering a charming comedy full of the subdued humor and emotion we’ve come to expect from the director, but built on something that’s a bit more than his usual.