Fox Searchlight / Warner Brothers
Wes Anderson escapes the gilded cage of his own distinct visual style by abandoning live-action for stop-motion in “Isle of Dogs.” Of course, his color-coded and symmetrical world is even more so in this film, since the world and its characters are quite literally constructed, but the puppet cast makes this both a quintessential and an unusual Wes Anderson film.
The film is set in an invented Japanese city 20 years in the future, when a brutally anti-dog political regime banishes all canines to an island made of trash, under the pretense of eradicating an untreatable dog flu combined with overpopulation. Only one bereaved dog owner, a 12-year-old boy named Atari — who happens to be the ward of Mayor Kobayashi, the man spearheading the anti-dog movement — flies a tiny plane to the Isle of Dogs and attempts to find his lost pet and bodyguard, Spots.
Atari’s rescue brings the dog situation to a head on the eve of a mayoral election that pits Kobayashi against a scientist who is developing a cure for dog flu, and the machinations of the ruling party are revealed to be sinister and far-reaching. This somewhat grand plot gives a nice, contrasting background to the intimate dialogue between the dog compatriots, voiced by the usual Anderson suspects including Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton.
An intentional language barrier creates a very effective experience of immersion into the canine world, for in this film, the voices of the dogs are spoken in English, while the humans, being Japanese, speak only Japanese with no subtitles. We infer the idea of what they are saying from context and body language. We are shown the world of dogs and their feelings toward humans and each other, and this language trick accomplishes so much of that effect.
I like films that show the rules and morals of a separate world, often a criminal world, and this film does that for canines. As such, it is very moving and adorable, but it has a disturbing apocalyptic edge to it. It’s odd and brilliant and gorgeous, complex and profound, particularly on a visual level. Inspired by Japanese films by Akira Kurosawa and Miyasaki, and with a score by Alexandre Desplat that includes memorable taiko drumming, this film has been accused of cultural appropriation, but the lens is so intentionally fictitious and inaccurate that it can only be seen as a deliberate collage, naïve by design.
“Isle of Dogs” is intensely aware of every reference, image and visual cue; it is as richly constructed as a Joseph Cornell assemblage. It takes delight in depicting scrambling dogfights that are shrouded in dust clouds of cotton balls, evoking nostalgia for the jerky, handmade stop-motion animation films of the past. Voice performances, particularly a canine flirtation between stray dog Bryan Cranston and a sultry show dog played by Scarlett Johansson, make the film not just a sculpture that moves, but a delightful tale of love, devotion, adventure, sushi, politics, amateur aviation and high school journalism.
“Isle of Dogs” is currently available to rent.