Wes Anderson returns to stop-motion animation with a delightfully odd tale that serves up the best dog vs cat person story to date. His keen eye for meticulously detailed film frames gets paired here with a love letter to the relationship we have with dogs as well as Anderson's fascination with Japanese cinema.
The depiction of Japanese culture in the film has received some criticism for treating a whole country as a series of curiosities. I think it is important from the onset that I think these criticisms are rendered ineffective due to Anderson's treatment of any culture in all of his films. He creates worlds that never try to reflect reality but perhaps magnify the quirks of all people, whether it be upper-class families or brilliant children. While I do think American cinema, in general, can struggle with "otherness", I don't think that translates well to Anderson's films.
Isle of Dogs, or I Love Dogs, is set in future Japan. Kobayashi (Kunichi Normura), the dog-hating and cat-loving mayor, has exiled all dogs to Trash Island after an outbreak of dog flu. Despite the science showing that a cure is possible, he uses the epidemic as a way to rid the country of man's best friend. The first dog to go is Spots(Liev Schreiber), the security dog of Kobayashi's ward Atari (Koyu Rankin). Atari decides to rescue him and crash lands on Trash Island and soon befriends a group of dogs. The group includes Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), King (Bob Balaban) and Boss (Bill Murray). Chief is immediately opposed to helping the boy but is overruled by the other four and thus an adventure begins that soon reveals a government coverup.
Anderson chooses to leave much of the spoken Japanese dialogue untranslated. The dogs and a few side characters are the only English speakers in the film. This may at first seem like an odd choice but it is instrumental in the creation of this awe-inspiring world. Anderson throws in robotic dogs, crusading exchange students and tons of twists and turns here. Every frame of the film feels toiled over in typical fashion for Anderson but what really stands out here is the emotional punch the film routinely has. Perhaps this is because I am a dog lover as well but the Isle of Dogs moved me several times.
The ensemble voice work here is wonderful, droll and yet passionate. Cranston makes a wonderful addition to Anderson's group of actors he regularly works with. So does Greta Gerwig as the plucky exchange student hellbent on exposing the mayor's evil plan and saving all dogs.
Isle of Dogs will certainly appeal to fans of the director's work but I think it has major potential to appeal to a wide audience of families. The film is a visual stunner with a huge heart and big laughs that wraps you up in a complex and stirring plot. Anderson's return to stop-motion animation is a huge success and easily one of the year's best.