Isle of Dogs
Updated: Feb 6, 2020
Isle of Dogs, the second stop-motion animated film by quirky indie filmmaker Wes Anderson, is a slight (very slight) departure from his usual style. It is more plot-heavy, more action-packed, has a very different soundtrack than you usually get from him and is partially in Japanese (most of which is neither subtitled nor translated). However, it does have his typical understated humor and features many of his recurring themes. It is not his best work, but it is funny and entertaining and features great animation and vocals from its talented cast.
The film is set in a future Japan where all dogs have become sick and are quarantined on an island. Twelve year-old Atari flies a plane there and sets off on a desperate quest to find his dog. The pace is slightly quicker than Anderson’s usual leisurely one, though there is still plenty of time for banter and a little bit of character development among the pack of dogs who decide to help Atari. In an odd choice, none of Atari’s dialogue is translated and none of the dogs speak Japanese. It leads to a little awkwardness but Anderson, to his credit, does not use the language barrier for laughs. Everyone understands each other as much as necessary.
Much like in Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, the animation is excellent. The way the fur moves on the animals is beautiful, while not quite being realistic. Everything has a slightly heightened quality to it, making it easy to accept this world for what it is. Since the film takes place on an island filled with garbage, there is a much grittier look to it than any of Anderson’s previous work. It feels like a dangerous place and the story reflects that (though the violence, when it comes, is rendered in a very cartoonish way).
Isle of Dogs (95 minutes without the end credits) also features Anderson’s typically great use of camera movement and character placement. He is great at creating worlds and then showing them off and that is no different with the dangers of Trash Island. The character design makes each of the dogs unique and easily recognizable and the way he places them in a frame tends to generate some laughs. It really is impressive how he has been able to effortlessly bring his style from live action to animation.
The voice cast, filled with Anderson regulars and some impressive newcomers, helps bring his typically deadpan humor to a relatively heavy story. Bryan Cranston lends just the right amount of pathos to the troubled Chief. Edward Norton is funny as wannabe-leader Rex. Bill Murray, who has been in every Anderson movie but one, understands Anderson’s style and has some great lines as Boss. Jeff Goldblum steals the movie with his hilarious line readings as the gossip-loving Duke. That is not even mentioning Liev Schreiber, Bob Balaban, Scarlett Johansson, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton and Courtney B. Vance as the narrator. The Japanese speaking cast, including Koyu Rankin as Atari and Kunichi Nomura as the dog hating Mayor Kobayashi, play their parts well, though it is harder for me to judge them since I do not speak Japanese. However, it is a great cast from top to bottom that brings real life and energy to this odd world.
While the story is darker than usual for Anderson, the tone is the same and the theme (of outcasts looking for connection) is a familiar one. Somehow, even though the movie is set in Japan, partially in Japanese, and with dogs as most of the major characters, it still feels very much like a Wes Anderson movie. If you enjoy his films, you will most likely enjoy this one. I do count myself among his fans and I thought Isle of Dogs was pretty good. It is stronger in style than in story, but still retains his wit and offbeat charm.
3¾ out of 5
Koyu Rankin as Atari
Bryan Cranston as Chief
Edward Norton as Rex
Jeff Goldblum as Duke
Bill Murray as Boss
Bob Balaban as King
Liev Schreiber as Spots
Greta Gerwig as Tracy
Scarlett Johansson as Nutmeg
Kunichi Nomura as Mayor Kobayashi
Akira Takayama as Major-Domo
Directed and Screenplay by Wes Anderson