Cast: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe
Director: Wes Anderson
Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Has there been a filmmaker as meticulous as Wes Anderson? His symmertical imagery, static framing, rigorous whip pans, and use of montage set to (mostly) British rock songs have made him into one of the most influential (and parodied) visual stylists of the past 20 years. The knock against Anderson has always been his comically particular way of telling stories leaves out relatable human behavior. Whereas early films like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums were artistic versions of reality filtered through quirky tableau, later works such as The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Grand Budapest Hotel showcased an artist fully invested in creating a dollhouse world all his own. Rather than respond to criticisms of his films being empty and arch, however, Anderson simply leaned into steamrolling his aesthetic like a kid inside a hotel-sized candy store.
All of this really isn't really a problem since artists are free to portray the world as they see fit. Heightened mise-en-scène to the point of obsessive-compulsiveness has always been Anderson's bag. So much so that his first foray into stop-motion animation, Fantastic Mr. Fox, turned out to be the perfect fit for his sensibilities. If Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and to a certain degree, The Royal Tenenbaums, contained moments of sad-sack emotion, then his latest effort, Isle of Dogs, is a visual triumph which tries to layer in melancholy through gag-a-minute imagery. As a pure distillation of that very specific thing Anderson does and does well, Isle of Dogs is an exhausting display of innovation. However, as a story taking place in a dystopian Japanese city 20 years in the future where dogs have been relegated to a trash heap for carrying diseases, the film replaces sociopolitical context with formalism. The way Isle of Dogs looks, sounds, and feels is the thing, and that may be enough. Still, even if Anderson isn't heralded primarily for narrative, this has to be one of his least compelling plotlines yet.
The story involves a young Japanese boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin), orphan of the devious Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura, who co-wrote the script with Anderson, Roman Coppola, and Jason Schwartzman) who travels to "trash island" in order to rescue his banished dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). A band of scraggly canines led by their cranky leader, Chief (Bryan Cranston) eventually decide to help Atari locate his missing pet, and what follows is a madcap buddy adventure riffing on Hollywood musicals, crime capers, and Akira Kurowsawa. To that end, Anderson homages entire shots/motifs here while mixing in music cues from The Seventh Samurai, and even includes a major shoutout to Ikiru with a prominent character's name. True to form, there's also plenty of Anderson banter between the dogs from an A-list voice cast including Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Jeff Goldblum.
Of course, the real draw here is the unbelievable visuals; from the stylized retro-futuristic Japan to the grungy decor of trash island. The herky-jerky movement of the dogs gives the film a spastic quality. Every fiber, hair, and swath of cotton smoke is intricately detailed. The score by Alexandre Desplat uses Japanese tribal rhythms to create a sense of unhinged energy. Droll quips give way to anecdotal detours packed with visual puns and gags; including manga-style frames, anime-style animation, and expository paintings. The film is simply bursting with invention; perhaps too much at times, which threatens to drown out the very simple story of a boy searching for his dog.
Then there's the issue of a white man's fantasy vision of Japan, which could rustle some sensibilities. There's an unabashed kitsch factor here, with Anderson throwing in stereotypical signifiers like Sumo wrestling, sushi, Kabuki theater, and taiko drumming. Clearly executed with great affection, Anderson's nods to figures like Kurosawa and Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai may have the unintended effect of white privilege; especially considering multiple mushroom-cloud gags and invocations of military corruption. An artist has the right to imagine whatever version of culture they desire, and Anderson's alternate universe is certainly dense with pastiche. However, the film's real issues have little to do with the fact that the Japanese character's words are never subtitled, but rather, that this is the rare Anderson film lacking truly memorable characters.
Isle of Dogs is like watching a talented toy-maker wind up his latest creation and then let it go sputtering into a beautifully designed trash heap. From scene to scene, moment to moment, there's unlikely a more meticulously structured and ingeniously choreographed film to be witnessed all year. The themes of devotion and love (between boy and dog/dog and dog) forming a utopian shield against the dangers of authoritarianism is certainly here, as is the idea of standing up to dangerous ideology; (unwisely portrayed by an American foreign exchange student protester voiced by Greta Gerwig). Mostly, though, Anderson's sheer joy in the act of creation makes Isle of Dogs brain-breaking in a way unrivaled by animated children's fare. Hell, this isn't even a children's film. It's a Wes Anderson film; every deadpan, demented, whimsical, matted mutt frame.