Maestro of whimsy Wes Anderson returns to stop-motion animation nearly a decade after Fantastic Mr. Fox to tell a story of political corruption and grassroots rebellion starring a bunch of scruffy mutts and overzealous kiddos in the absolutely delightful Isle of Dogs. Draped in quirky Andersonisms, understated humor, and brassy real-world parallels, the auteur’s ninth film is an irreverent celebration of outsiders that’s steeped in Japanese culture and plopped within a dog-eat-dog political treatise on inclusion and the dangers of nationalism.
On the surface, Isle of Dog’s furry handcrafted canines prove a visual delight to behold – the drape of each bristly dog hair alive in that inimitable stop-motion fashion, the hand-crafted sets as big and bold as anything accomplished in the time-consuming medium – and for that reason alone will surely delight younger members of the audience. But it is the adults in the audience who truly stand to benefit from Anderson’s rose-colored reflection of national xenophobia and the triumph of the Davids of the world.
There are no direct references to America’s Trump but traces of his nasty paw-prints are laced throughout Isle of Dogs, a film where villains feed on discord, fear monger for divisive political victories and silence their opposition at any cost. The barbed undercurrents of Isle of Dogs are sly enough to slip under the radar of many but make no mistake, Anderson has made an acutely political film that hums with messages about shucking off abusive, entrenched power structures with the underdogs – quite literally in this case – and idealistic youths seizing power for the good of progress and the people.
Anderson executes a close shave off the Jungian hero’s journey, telling a shaggy dog story about a dirtied stray named Chief (Bryan Cranston) who must overcome forces both external (robot hounds; a prevalent, debilitating dog flu; a population poisoned against the presence of man’s best friend) and internal (general disobedience; a predilection for violence; scorn for a world that tossed him away.) Chief, in a perfect tip of the cap to his Japanese environs, is a textbook Ronin. Masterless, he lords over Trash Isle, where Japan’s entire population of dogs has been relocated to following the cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) controversial decree that outlawed the animals, sending them off to fend for themselves.
Isle of Dogs exists in a world of legend, one such detailing how dogs and humans share an uneasy alliance, the former previously roving in packs and living without masters before a long and bloody war with their now masters. Despite these rumors of ole, the love between one dog-parent and his loyal pupper cannot be stayed, spayed or put out to pasture. Crash landing into the story comes a determined little pilot, Atari (Koyu Rankin), ward and estranged nephew to the villainous Kobayashi who has made his way to Trash Island in the hopes of finding his loyal dog Spots (Liev Schreiber).
Although Chief’s pack, which includes Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), is eager to aid the little human, Chief is not so easily convinced. Prickly and wounded, he has no lost love for humans and no need for a master. “I bite,” he warns, both friend and foe. Cranston is nothing short of great in the role, lending pathos, grit and spirit to the brusque but sympathetic Chief while Norton, Murray, Balaban, and Goldblum inject hearty belly-laughs freely. The first act of the film is a nonstop laugh riot, with the straight-forward pronouncements of plot details just as giddy and chuckle-inducing as the dry humor, sour wit, fatalistic gallows’ humor and silly sight gags peppered throughout Isle of Dogs.
The repute doesn’t stop there as Anderson smuggles as many superstars into the voice cast as humanly possible with Greta Gerwig joining as the driven, animal rights activist, foreign exchange student Tracy Walker, Frances McDormand acting as a television interpreter and Scarlett Johansson voicing a well-coiffed former show dog named Nutmeg, who’s treated to a recurring joke about dog show tricks that is about as Wes Anderson as you can get.
Stylistically, Isle of Dogs is worthy of many a treat. Even among the decrepit, inhospitable Trash Island, the stop-motion animation is a thing of beauty and full of life. Anderson uses quirky little flairs, like a gyrating plume of smoke when a scuffle ensues, that give Isle of Dogs’ style a sense of character all its own. The way Anderson frames his characters is reminiscent of many a classic samurai film, Anderson tipping his hat to the great Akira Kurosawa on more than one occasion, and accented perfectly by Tristan Oliver’s sightly cinematography. Recent Oscar-winner Alexandre Desplat (Shape of Water) steps in to deliver a transportive soundscape accented by traditional Japanese percussion that also serves as endearing little animated bookends to the feature.
Taking an admittedly bold leap, Anderson makes the fascinating directorial choice to have all native Japanese characters actually speak in their native tongue. He uses devices such as McDormand’s aforementioned TV interpreter, Gerwig’s foreign exchange student or scientific print-outs to breach the language barrier, always finding some clever way to do so. After some time, the decision ends up being more than a gimmick and speaks to the inability of certain groups to communicate, paying dividends to Isle of Dog‘s message of overcoming division through a somewhat Tower of Babel-esque approach.
Isle of Dogs may not be Anderson’s most emotionally explosive entry to his filmography nor frankly is it his funniest but this joyful creation remains a thing of no small wonder nonetheless. A breath of fresh air done up with all the cinematic bells and whistles, riddled with artistic flourish and frequent hysterics. Slyly intelligent and yet widely accessible, this old dog learning new tricks journey had a smile peeled across my face throughout its entirety and a greedy laugh erupting in dependable intervals. A one-of-a-kind creator that deserves great admiration, Anderson has thrown down the gauntlet in the centuries’ old cats v. dogs debate while hedging in poignant commentary on the need for citizen’s lawful revolt. And he did it with a bunch of cute doggy puppets.
CONCLUSION: A super serum of irreverent whimsy and heartfelt friendships, rife with topical political undercurrents about inclusion and nationalism, Wes Anderson’s ‘Isle of Dogs’ is one exceedingly pleasant and gorgeously animated delight for the senses that manages testy thematic material along with its good boy attitude. Truly, a treat.