Wes Anderson is back, and his latest film is another fantastic medley of comedy, beauty and emotion. Isle of Dogs finds him using one of his more interesting filmmaking techniques, stop motion, the same format he employed for his 2009 film Fantastic Mr. Fox. Like Fantastic Mr. Fox, this film is told through the lens of animals — specifically, dogs.
The story follows a dystopian future Japan, in which a cat-loving dictator has decreed that all dogs must be banished to Trash Island off the coast due to their spreading “dog flu.” In an act of supposed solidarity, the mayor sends his own dog, Spots, to the island first. As it turns out, the only one hurt by the loss of Spots is the mayor’s nephew and ward, Atari, as Spots was really his dog. Atari takes it upon himself to go to Trash Island and bring Spots home.
Meanwhile, there is rising political tension in Megasaki City, where the mayor is facing opposition to his plan, including a scientist who claims to have discovered a cure for dog flu and a foreign exchange student hell-bent on bringing down the dominant ideology.
On Trash Island, Atari meets a group of dogs that have banded together for survival, including Chief, Rex, Boss, Duke and King, played by Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Bob Balaban, respectively. Each gives fine performances as their canine counterpart, but none more so than Cranston as Chief. Chief has the most compelling arc in the film and his emotional journey is beautifully acted, which is especially impressive as it’s purely vocal. His choices alongside Atari truly make for a heartwarming exposition on what it means to be man’s best friend.
What makes this film particularly special is what makes all of Wes Anderson’s films special; the ability to seamlessly combine truly funny moments with heartfelt emotion over a tapestry of gorgeous cinematography. There are plenty of moments in the film that demand a laugh, but there are just as many that might ask for a tear. The film is sincerely about friendship, whether it’s that of the pack of dogs, dogs and masters, or humans banding together. The complicated emotions relayed throughout the film touch home for anyone, even though a majority of the film is in Japanese. Some things just don’t need to be said to be understood; Wes Anderson knows it.
The aesthetics of the film stand out just as much as any other aspect. Like all of Wes Anderson’s pieces, everything is surrounded by symmetry and is completely engaging. It helps focus each frame on exactly what the audience needs to see, which leads to not only beautiful cinematography but also helps pace the story. The bright colors mixed with the despair of Trash Island illuminated the hope behind the dogs’ plight and the deep reds and yellows in Megasaki City showed the power and determination of both the mayor and the dissenters.
Isle of Dogs can be described as a return to form for Anderson if he had ever left his form. It’s another highlight in a long career of carefully crafted films and should be seen by fans and newcomers alike.