ISLE OF DOGS Review: 7 out of 10 (Anderson's Fetching New Film)
ISLE OF DOGS is the latest stop-motion animated film written, produced and directed by Wes Anderson. The film's ensemble voice cast includes Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Courtney B. Vance, Fisher Stevens, Harvey Keitel, Liev Schreiber, Bob Balaban, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Frank Wood and Yoko Ono. Anderson’s penchant for complex camera work, symmetrical composition, snap zooms, and color palettes really feed into this type of animation since he has complete control over every single shot. Anderson dipped into this type of filmmaking prior to this with THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX and returns to add quite a bit of Japanese cultural flair to ISLE OF DOGS.
In a dystopian near-future Japan, a dog flu virus spreads throughout the canine population. The authoritarian new mayor, Kobayashi, signs a decree banishing all dogs to the nearby “Trash Island” which is a wasteland of old power plants, amusement parks, and industrial waste. Despite the best efforts of a scientist named Professor Watanabe who insists he is close to finding a cure, the dogs are sent away. The first dog to be banished is Spots, who belonged to young Atari Kobayashi, the orphaned nephew and ward of the mayor himself.
Six months later, Atari runs away from home, steals a plane and flies to Trash Island to find his dog. After a crash-landing, he is rescued by five dogs: Rex, King, Duke, Boss, and Chief. Together, they set out on a journey to find Atari’s best friend. A journey that leads to conspiracies and an eventual revolution. The movie jumps back and forth in the narrative with a heavy use of flashbacks and re-telling of the characters and their own stories. Though these edits offer a few surprises along the way, after a while it becomes jarring as the film hops back and forth to explain all the subplots. It is all fairly high-minded stuff, even for Anderson. Like all of Anderson’s work, there is an oddity factor that is both quirky and, at times, a bit too much so—as if Anderson needs to out-do his own style portfolio. ISLE OF DOGS certainly retains all the “nod-and-a-wink” hallmarks of every other Anderson film here but adds a strong reliance on the Japanese cultural mythos to add to the film’s tone.
And that cultural choice doesn’t always work, but it is a fun gambit to experience. Though this type of cultural imaginary isn’t negative per se, the film does seem to simplify the Japanese culture to a few stereotyped images and even opts to translate the dialogue into simple contextual markers. In place of a fuller Japanese interpretation, there is a convenient addition of a sort of narrator/tour guide in an American exchange student who comes close to a white savior of the film. It isn’t *negative* per se, but it feels more like more of an aesthetic choice than a representation of a larger culture. One other unique flair in all of Anderson’s work is his use of a soundtrack to help inform the visual experience. Longtime collaborator Alexandre Desplat’s score here, however, is repetitive and at times intrusive and overpowering. Again, this feels like it is a composer’s interpretation of Japanese culture than a true representation.
ISLE OF DOGS is a charming story that feels more like a Wes Anderson travel poster to Tokyo than a story set in Japan. It falls a fairly predictable story that probably suffered from a marketing campaign that revealed too much of the story to start with. In Anderson’s overall filmography it falls somewhere in the middle and doesn’t come close to his previous animated work. Having said that, it is still decent praise for a film willing to take a few risks.