I don’t exactly when it happened, but somewhere over the course of Wes Anderson’s career the main narrative around his films came about their style and quirkiness than their content. Don’t get me wrong, Wes Anderson’s films are highly stylized and quirky to no end, but to only refer to his films by their aesthetic discounts the wit and storytelling skills that Anderson displays in each of his films. Sure, he’s had a few misfires but Wes Anderson’s films have evolved and become more and more sophisticated, which started with Anderson’s first stop motion animated film Fantastic Mr. Fox and culminated with his finest film yet The Grand Budapest Hotel. Now Wes Anderson returns to stop motion animation with his latest feature Isle of Dogs (say it fast), and it continues his remarkable trend of modern classics that has been uninterrupted since his first foray into animation.
After an amusing prologue presented by the pup Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) that dives into the complex history between the House of Kobayashi and canines, we’re taken to Megasaki City which is the grips of an epidemic as Snout-Fever and Dog-Flu run rampant. Megasaki City’s Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) decrees that all dogs be exiled to Trash Island as to stop the spread of the disease. One by one, the dogs of Megasaki City are sent to the island. Six months later, young Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), the orphaned ward of Mayor Kobayashi, crash lands on Trash Island in search of his beloved dog Spots. Upon landing on the isle, Atari is helped by five lovable mutts – a gossipy hound Duke (Jeff Goldblum), the former mascot of a baseball team Boss (Bill Murray), a former spokesdog for Doggy Chop King (Bob Balaban), the dedicated and loyal Rex (Edward Norton), and the stray reluctant to form any bond with a human Chief (Bryan Cranston). The quintet of dogs aid the lost young boy in the hopes of reuniting him with his beloved Spots.
In Megasaki City, there’s a political struggle unfolding with Mayor Kobayashi facing political opposition from the head of the Science Party Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito). The corrupt mayor dispatches his political opponent with some poisoned wasabi, just as Professor Watanabe has discovered the cure for the disease that has plagued the metropolis. Meanwhile, this web of lies and deceit is being unwound by the foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), who forms a crush on young Akira from a distance.
Unlike Fantastic Mr. Fox, which was much more geared for kids with plenty of elements for adults to latch onto, Isle of Dogs isn’t really a kids’ movie. The plotting and humor of the film are much more complex and it could easily be confusing or dull for younger viewers. For animal lovers keen for a droll sense of humor, Isle of Dogs is just an absolute delight to behold. Anderson’s script (from a story credited to Anderson, Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola, and Kunchi Nomura) takes us on an unusual journey full of surprises and emotional payoff that always have a sharp wit running as an undercurrent. Along the way, Anderson and company fill the journey with an array of colorful characters such as Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), a former show dog with an array of tricks, or Gondo (Harvey Keitel), the leader of a canine gang of outcasts.
One of the trickier aspects of Isle of Dogs that is presented before Anderson is the question of cultural appropriation, with white Texan filmmaker using Japanese culture and cinematic influences to craft his story. One way Anderson dodges that bullet is by having all Japanese characters speaking Japanese and performed by Japanese actors. Meanwhile, there’s always a form of translator (sometimes mechanical, sometimes a character voiced by Frances McDormand) to ensure that nothing is lost on the audience. While I wouldn’t fault anyone for feeling a sense of offense to Anderson’s use of Japanese culture, it seems quite apparent that Anderson put as much thought and care into delicately respecting Japanese culture as he put into his meticulously framed shots.
Isle of Dogs is another delightful wonder from Wes Anderson and another one of his films that proves he’s so much more than just a stylist. Once again, Anderson examines connections fostered during youth, this time between a boy and his dog. At the same time, Isle of Dogs examines how tradition passed down without question or doubt leads to a reckless and cruel dogma. Here is another joyous cinematic experience by Wes Anderson that dazzles the eye, tickles the funny bone, and makes you think about what you’ve experienced. Wes Anderson is one of truly unique filmmakers and Isle of Dogs is further evidence of that.