2018 | rated PG-13 | Animated | directed by Wes Anderson | 1hr 41 mins |
Studio Pitch: People love dogs, what’s better than a whole island of them. Facebook will go nuts!
With a cute animation style and adorable talking canine stars, Isle of Dogs is poised to attract a crowd that lives to share puppy videos on Facebook; but from the very beginning where onscreen text warns the viewer that this film – set in future world Japan – will feature Japanese characters speaking in their native tongue with no subtitles it becomes clear that idiosyncratic director Wes Anderson’s latest is going to be far more of a challenge than it looks. Indeed, Isle of Dogs is relentlessly cute, and it’s visually gorgeous, but it’s also an endlessly inventive satire and a satisfyingly rich adventure that has both feet planted firmly in a story of political oppression and rebellion. Anderson’s ultimate theme may be as simple as reversing the old adage that you actually can teach an old dog new tricks, but he gets there in the most entertaining and thrilling way possible.
Maybe I’m a Wes Anderson fan when Anderson backlash is starting to become hip, but his quirky style and directing signatures proved a perfect match for stop motion animation in Fantastic Mr. Fox and he pushes the story envelope even further with Isle of Dogs. Every frame of the film is wondrous to behold. The Japan of this movie is a hyper-stylized homage to Japanese cinema in the same way he hyper-stylized pre-WWII Budapest in The Grand Budapest Hotel or Damien Chazelle hyper-stylized Los Angeles into a 1940s musical that never existed in La La Land. Weaving in drum beats (turned into Anderson’s usually excellent driving score), sumo, sushi, robot dogs and Yakuza-esque assassinations, Isle of Dogs is anime held up to a whimsical funhouse mirror. The frame is filled with pause-worthy details and Anderson keeps the tone consistently entertaining, even when spiking the film with some harsh and even gruesome visual punches. It’s not often a cartoon to get a PG-13 rating, but Anderson earns it here.
Isle boasts a high concept premise that doesn’t rest on that idea, but starts there and sneakily teases out a heart-felt character journey from members of the canine ensemble to go along with their literal journey. In a nutshell, 20 years from now the President of Japan, a dictator named Kobyoshi, follows in a long line of his cat-loving, dog-hating heritage and uses his power to turn a case of Dog Flu into a public panic, stamping into law a ban on man’s best friend and deporting all dogs to Trash Island starting with his own, Spots (voiced by Leiv Schreiber). A few year’s later Kobyoshi’s adopted nephew Atari commanders a plane to Trash Island where he meets a pack of it’s inhabitants who have made a life amongst the trash and sets off on a quest to find Spots. Anderson has enlisted his reliable trope to voice the dogs with note-perfect takes by Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban and Bryan Cranston as the film’s stop-motion stars.
From there, the film is full of twists, surprises, double-twists and flashbacks that flesh out the world. The writing is Anderson’s usually dense and clever dialog in top form and he isn’t afraid to put the sacred animals in real peril as the adventure progresses. If the film isn’t as funny as The Grand Budapest Hotel or Fantastic Mr. Fox, it is “Wes Anderson Funny”, which you could argue is more clever than it is funny – but the film has such a fast, fun, energy to it that actual laughs comes as the cherry on top of the Sunday. I particularly loved the Oracle dog whose ability to understand TV is interpreted as psychic visions by the other dogs. Like Moonrise Kingdom and Grand Budapest Hotel, Dogs starts off deliberately staccato and builds and builds, moving faster, cutting quicker, piling on running jokes and quickening the music as it climbs toward it’s climax. These are fundamentally silly, indie comedies, and yet Anderson has such a meticulous hand and masterful command of the music and editing that he’s made them more exciting than most Hollywood action movies. It makes one wonder what a real Wes Anderson thriller would look like. Ironically, Isle of Dogs is a creep closer to that then I expected.
A recent article in The New Yorker by Richard Brody is worth a read. It proposes a mind-blowing theory that this film is the climax to a thematic trilogy Anderson has been secretly building about creeping political authoritarianism and rebellion. In the first film, Moonrise Kingdom two pre-teens rebelled against the status quo and The State’s authority Child Services for young love. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, all of the action ran parallel to an increasing occupation by the Nazi-like Zig-Zag consortium that invaded the background of the film as it went along – but was not resolved. In Isle of Dogs we’ve reached full totalitarianism and the abuse of it’s 4-legged proxy heroes inspires a full-blown rebellion. That all of this comes in beautifully fluid stop motion animation in a fully realized world packaged around dog jokes and distinctly cartoonish touches like fights obscured inside Peanuts-like dust clouds makes it all the more subversive.
After The Grand Budapest Hotel I wondered if Wes Anderson had made his masterpiece and now I wonder that again. Isle of Dogs is top tier work from a filmmaker at the top of his game. A stunning piece of animation heading for cult status and repeat viewings. It is simply one of the most purely enjoyable movies of the year. I loved every second of it.