“you say isle of dogs we hear i love dogs” reads a tweet from the official Isle of Dogs account. Naturally, I repeated it over and over again — Isle of Dogs, I love dogs, Isle of Dogs, I love dogs. Wes Anderson’s latest is a touching love letter to our canine companions. It’s replete with the signature touches we know and love (or hate), a style that has been parodied a countless number of times. The delectable animation on display here is no gimmick though — Anderson imbues his film with a warmth and sincerity that affirms that his style can coexist with substance, with the breezy confidence of an auteur in full command of his craft.
In the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki, mayor Kobayashi has banished every dog to Trash Island — the titular Isle — to curb the spread of “dog flu” and “canine fever”. One of these dogs is Spots, the former bodyguard dog of the mayor’s orphaned nephew Atari, and the subject of a desperate search that is the heart of this story. Back in Megasaki, group of teenage activists attempt to rise against the corrupt government and find a cure for the dog flu. Isle of Dogs is thrilling and charming in equal measure — I even found myself tearing up a few times, but if the sight of a dog crying doesn’t make you feel anything then you definitely don’t have a heart.
Much like his last film The Grand Budapest Hotel, the film is filled to the brim with a legendary cast of voices. The pack of dogs who help Atari find his lost pet is led by Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray long accustomed to the life of abandonment long before his exile to the island. Joining Cranston are many of Anderson’s regular collaborators including Jeff Goldblum as a dog with an appetite for gossip, F. Murray Abraham as a wise mutt, and Tilda Swinton as a pug who can see the future (she actually just understands television). On the human side, the Japanese characters are played by Japanese actors (I’ll try not to celebrate the bare minimum), plus there’s a feisty American exchange student/pro-dog activist voiced by Greta Gerwig. My personal favourite is musician Yoko Ono as scientist Yoko Ono.
The film is layered with a thrilling element of world-building — with a prologue that introduces a rich history, and respites from the plot to establish geography on and off the island. It indicates a dedication to create not only a gripping story, but also a world that feels lived-in. This being a Wes Anderson film, with all its endearing whimsy, you obviously can’t take it too seriously — but it didn’t stop me from wanting to return to that world as soon as the credits started rolling. Despite the cutesiness of an animated film about finding your lost dog, this film is not intended for kids (or at least ones who can’t stomach violence). There are chewed-off ears, bloody injuries, there’s even time for kidney surgery. This is by no means a light film — some would say it’s “ruff” around the edges (internet membership revoked).
The film wears its Japanese influences on its sleeve, not just in its setting, but also the works of masters like Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki. This isn’t an example of culture shopping or exoticism though, it’s dedicated to paying tribute to Japanese art and cinema in all its beauty. The prologue cheekily imitates classic Japanese art and Alexandre Desplat’s inspired score features taiko drums and recorders galore. As a witty viewers note in the beginning explains — every character speaks in their native language (with the barks translated to English). The interpreter voiced by Frances McDormand translates the Japanese dialogue in some scenes while others forego subtitles completely. I don’t want to call it brave on Anderson’s part, because it’s not really, but while some detractors might call it alienating, I felt completely immersed. The film isn’t concerned with catering to western audiences, as it should.
Isle of Dogs is a breath of fresh air from the overwhelming catalogue of CG animation. The stop-motion animation is a wonderful celebration of the tactile and palpable: dust clouds are made from cotton balls and the most visual effects you will find are the brief switches to 2D animation. I felt absolutely giddy when I noticed the ticks crawling on the dogs, marking an admirable attention to detail. This is a film that rewards repeat viewings, offering endless opportunities to fulfill that thrilling pleasure of finding something new. Trash Island is a relic of abandonment, an industrial wasteland with hints of the bustling life that resided before it was tossed aside like its inhabitants. As Atari and the pack travel across the island, we’re treated with stunning landscapes that find beauty in the rubble. As you would expect, the film is a feast for the eyes, with Anderson’s classic use of symmetry and stock selection of shots. But he also finds more creative places for the camera that prove that Anderson is more than a one trick…dog.
What struck me most about Isle of Dogs is that it’s perhaps Wes Anderson’s most political film. This is a film that exposes the toxicity of prejudices, and ignoring those in need; Kobayashi’s fear of the ‘other’ feels all to real. It’s also testament to the power of activism and the activist group being comprised of teenagers did not escape me. Maybe because of everything going on in the world right now, everything rings as political — even animated movies about dogs. However, its messages don’t come across as heavy-handed, it all feels natural and necessary for the story.
If you love dogs, this was made for you, and if you love Wes Anderson, this was definitely made for you. And I’m very sorry if you’re a cat person because I’ve never seen a film that has villainised our feline friends as much as this. Nevertheless, Isle of Dogs is an ineffable delight, a scintillating treat that is impossible to resist. Basically, Wes Anderson can do no wrong.