Isle of Dogs is one of those films that you’ll know if it’s for you within the first few minutes. For me, it definitely was. Instantly, you’re greeted by the strange and beautiful quirks of a Wes Anderson film. It’s artsy, intricate and beautifully shot, and in this case, like Fantastic Mr. Fox before it, features a wealth of fascinating-looking puppets.
For western viewers, this will no doubt make a lot of the film seem especially unfamiliar when compared to your standard mainstream movie. Between the puppets, the future setting and the fact that the human characters almost exclusively speak Japanese, the film may seem at first like it’s going to be hard to invest in. But if you’re willing to accept all that, you’ll be in for a hell of a ride.
The film sees a Japan some twenty years in the future, where Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) has created a nation where dogs are outlawed, and have been banished to Trash Island. Due to the growing outbreaks of dog flu, his decision has been largely uncontested, but six months after the event, his ward and nephew Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), has absconded to Trash Island – now known as the ‘Isle of Dogs’ – to find his own dog, Spots Kobayashi (Liev Schreiber). There, he meets a pack of Alpha Dogs; Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and the mistrustful street dog Chief (Bryan Cranston). Together, the six set out on a quest to find Spots, while back on the mainland, exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) begins unearthing a conspiracy about the ‘Isle of Dogs’.
First off, the fact that pretty much all the A-List western actors have been confined to the roles of dogs is a brilliant move. It’s not uncommon to fall in love with dogs on film, they’re dogs, after all. It’s generally less common to get a film where the dogs can talk that is of a good quality. And yet, with the vocal talents of Cranston, Norton, Murray, Goldblum and the rest, each of these canine characters is enthused with their own unique (and often hilarious) personalities, that are so enthralling that you don’t really care about the fact you can’t understand Japanese, and thus, most of the human characters.
The writing in this film, for the most part, is excellent. The character work is sublime, and some brilliant comedy (both verbal and visual) is drawn out of the various features of man’s best friend. A particular favourite of mine is that of Oracle (Tilda Swinton), a dog who is hailed as having the ability to see the future, when in fact, she just stares at the TV so often that she has a pretty good sense of what’s going on.
If there were any failings in the writing, it would just be that the second part of the film shakes up the direction, and in the process a lot of the quirkiness and humour that comes from the dogs themselves is lost, especially as the spotlight is taken away from much of the supporting cast like Murray and Goldblum, and placed squarely on the two stars of the piece, Cranston and Koyu Rankin.
But that is but a small grievance with what is otherwise a fantastic film. Even if you were to take the story and humour out, and focus solely on the look of the piece, you would find some immensely intricate and beautifully coloured stop-motion animation, that seems so weird at times that it’s unnerving, and so purposefully alien at others that you can’t help but admire the bizarre nature of what you’re seeing.
Ultimately, Isle of Dogs is a ridiculous film that revels in that ridiculousness, and is all the better for it. Under Wes Anderson’s brilliant direction, audiences are treated to a beautiful, and often emotional, spectacle that will no doubt stand the test of time.
Dir: Wes Anderson
Scr: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman & Kunichi Nomura
Prd: Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales & Jeremy Dawson
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura, Liev Schreiber, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Greta Gerwig, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, F. Murray Abraham & Tilda Swinton
DoP: Tristan Oliver
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Run time: 99 minutes