It’s pretty fair to say that Wes Anderson is one of the few directors whose style is so unique that his films are a genre unto themselves. Whenever anyone mentions a Wes Anderson film you get these images in your head that you only see in Wes Anderson films. One of these elements is a high degree of precision in the way everyone and everything moves in Anderson’s films. That’s why stop motion animation is a format that has really benefited Anderson’s style. We’ve already seen Anderson use it with his adaptation of Fantastic Mr Fox, but there was still the limitations that were placed on Anderson by adapting Roald Dahl’s book. With Isle of Dogs though, we get to see Anderson unleash his full creativity with stop motion, and Anderson uses it to create an absolutely gorgeous film with a good heart behind it.The film takes place in a near-future Japan following an outbreak of dog flu which has spread through the full canine population of Japan. In response to this, Mayor Kobayashi of Megasaki City signs a decree sending all dogs to Trash Island. The film picks up a while later with the Mayor’s ward/nephew, Atari, going to the island to find his dog, Spots. When he lands on the island, he runs into a pack of dogs, Chief, Rex, Duke, King and Boss, who help him find Spots, with Chief being more reluctant to do so, later forming a bond with Atari. All the while, we see that there is a conspiracy underway in Megasaki around the removal of the dogs, the conspiracy impacting a group of scientists working to find a cure for dog flu and the conspiracy being investigated by a group of students, the point of view character for these scenes being American exchange student Tracy. Now the first thing to do is to address the elephant in the room and that is the decision of Anderson to set the film in Japan and not use subtitles to translate what the characters are saying, instead relying on Tracy and a translator for these scenes. Now there is the argument to be made that this do constitute cultural appropriation and alienation in the depiction of Japanese culture, with Tracy acting as a white saviour for the film. Personally, I didn’t find it too much of an issue for me as it did feel that Anderson was being respectful of Japanese culture and having this language barrier worked wonders for the scenes with the dogs, the barrier helping to make the eventual bond between Atari and Chief work better on a visual level. Again, I understand the issues that exist within the depiction of Japan in the film, but it never really bothered me.
Now going into the actual plot of the film, I would say that the conspiracy element of the film is the weakest element, that’s not to say that this element of the film was bad, it’s just that, compared to the rest of the film, it isn’t as fully realised. I did find it entertaining and it did lead to some great deadpan comedic moments though. Of course, the main meat of the film is the island itself. I’ll get into it more a bit later but the genius of Anderson’s decisions with the film come from making it from the perspective of the dogs and using this to go into how dogs get treated, from the friendship we see between Atari and Spots, and later with Chief, how dogs have been treated in scientific experiments and, through Chief, the way that stray dogs are treated. All of these elements create a strong heart throughout the film which helps to make the film memorable.
The performances meanwhile are great at adding to the world of the film. Now, being a Wes Anderson film, the cast list for this film is insane, I won’t go into all of the cast in detail but most of the cast members are able to make their characters memorable, even in small appearances. Whilst this is an ensemble cast, the unquestionable lead in the film is Bryan Cranston as Chief. Firstly, Cranston’s gruff voice is perfectly suited for playing a dog, I can’t quite explain why but when you hear his voice coming out of a dogs mouth it just makes sense and he really sells the development of Chief from a dog that is bitter and lonely to being accepting of others. This is also helped by Koyu Rankin as Atari who has a really difficult job as his performance will not be understood by most of the Western audience of the film. Unless you speak Japanese you will not know what Rankin is saying as Atari but through the way Rankin delivers the dialogue, in conjunction with the animation, we understand every emotion felt by Atari. For the other dogs, Edward Norton as Rex does a good job showing the conflict he has in leadership style and empathy at the start with Chief, Jeff Goldblum gets some great comedic moments throughout the film, Liev Schreiber gives a strong performance later on in the film, but to say why would be a spoiler, and there’s a great sense of wisdom provided by F. Murray Abraham and Tilda Swinton. If there is a complaint it’s that a lot of the cast get lost, even though they do good work in building up the world, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson and Harvey Keitel do get lost in the pack sometimes. For the human characters, Greta Gerwig does a good job as Tracy, showing the intelligence of the character and her determination to uncover the conspiracy, she does sound a bit too old for the part in my opinion, but she does still do a great job. We get solid work from Frances McDormand as an interpreter who helps to fill the audience in on the context surrounding the film and let them understand the Japanese characters whilst Courtney B Vance has a perfect, soothing voice for a narrator. For the Japanese actors, like with Rankin, most of what we hear from them isn’t subtitled or it’s translated to us by McDormand which means that we aren’t fully able to understand what the characters are saying, it’s all down to vocal inflections to let the audience understand the tone of the characters in these scenes and all of the Japanese actors do a great job in letting the audience understand what they are saying in terms of the tone in which the dialogue is delivered.
The true star of the film though is the animation and it’s here that Anderson’s attention to detail really pays off. Virtually every single element of the film is rendered in stop motion animation, the exception being whenever we see TV footage, in which case it switches to 2D animation, which I thought was a great stylistic choice. What makes the animation all the more impressive are the smaller details in the film that would have taken a lot of effort to animate, could barely be seen, but add so much to the world of the film, including the constant sneezing of the dogs due to the dog flu, the flies and maggots on Trash Island and all of the background characters in the Senate scenes. This attention to detail helps to give the film so much of its charm and character and will help give the film more life in repeat viewings to see what else Anderson hid in the background. The animation and music also has a lot of respect for Japanese culture throughout, even the way the human characters are moved being reminiscent of the style of Noh theatre, with the costumes for the puppets and the whole environment of the film, even down to the music, having this feeling of respect for Japanese culture, and if this level of respect was not seen then the entire film would fall apart. The designs for each of the dogs meanwhile makes it so the personality of the dogs can be clearly understood from the moment you see them, allowing the audience to clearly differentiate between the dogs in the big group shots of the film, along with allowing small changes to the puppets to indicate the character development in the film, particularly in regards to Chief.
Overall, whilst I do understand the issues that people have with Isle of Dogs, I found it to be a beautiful, charming film, the likes of which you can only get with Wes Anderson. The medium of stop motion animation is perfectly suited to Anderson’s signature style and the sheer attention to detail in every frame of this film, down to the smallest level of animation in the background, helps to give the world of the film a great sense of life. It’s probably not my favourite Wes Anderson film (that honour would be a toss up between Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel), but you can tell how much of a labour of love this film was and that level of passion alone is worthy of attention.
My Rating: 5/5