While talking dogs have long been a cinematic gimmick, they have never been as affectionately rendered as in Wes Anderson’s latest animation Isle of Dogs. The film is set 20 years in the future and takes place within a dystopian Japan. Following an executive decree from Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), all dogs suffering from canine flu are exiled to a remote island where decades of rubbish have been dumped.
When the Mayor’s adopted nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin) sees his loyal dog Spots (Live Schreiber) sent to Trash Island, he flies there in a small propeller plane in an attempt to find his dog. Once on the island his ventures are aided by a ramshackle group of dogs: Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum).
There will be few surprises for fans of director Wes Anderson, who has gained a loyal fan base with films such as Rushmore, The Royal Tenebaums, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. While the influence of Akira Kurosawa and Studio Ghibli is present, it would be an overstatement to say that Isle of Dogs is a homage to the masters of Japanese cinema. Anderson’s style is instantly recognisable and his latest film contains the same idiosyncratic characters and whimsical storylines that he has built his reputation on. It is an approach that has lost none of its charm and one that will likely leave audiences similarly enthralled.
It is a dystopian future that only Anderson could imagine, complete with analogue televisions, Polaroid photos, a nostalgic soundtrack, and lots of symmetrical shots. The stop-motion animation itself is stunning. It creates a textured and immersive world that could rival anything from Aardman Animations. Anderson has previously shown his flair for animation with his loose adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox, but Isle of Dogs may be even more accomplished, containing some of the most beautifully detailed and conceived animation I have ever seen.
The plot does not let the visuals down and is driven by earnest and sincere motives. It is hard not to root for Atari and his pack of underdog companions. Anderson has always been adept at crafting and structuring compelling narratives and Isle of Dogs is no exception.
There are times, however, when I am unsure if Anderson knows how to navigate the thematic realms he finds himself in. He is as comfortable as even when looking at friendship, troubled parental relationships, and storytelling but merely circles around themes of genocide and the darker moments of Japan’s past. When the dogs of Trash Island are threatened with extermination rather than facing the issue head on Anderson instead evades the topic with a clever narrative sidestep.
And yet, it is hard not drawn into the film and absorbed in its world. Containing everything we have come to expect from Wes Anderson, Isle of Dogs is an affectionate and beautifully crafted fable full of dry humour, creative visual gags, and a touch of melancholy.