It’s refreshing to see Wes Anderson bring his dark, dry, and gorgeous gift for comedy to the realm of animation. In a medium that seems to favor the two tones of family-friendly romps and festival-friendly art pieces, Isle of Dogs finds that sweet spot in the middle of the fantastical and the absurd. It’s a parable strong enough to sell its lore and weirdness of a dog-centric adventure in the retro-future, but not above having a laugh with the very concept itself. The consistent surrealness places it alongside the likes of Watership Down and Plague Dogs, films that may leave you baffled at how they were approved, but all the more pleased that they were.
In the future, or at least Anderson’s odd vision of the future where the 1960s swag of wood panel electronics never died, Japan faces an epidemic. All of the country’s dogs have contracted a disgusting disease that must be solved soon. Since the nation already has a bitter history with the four-legged species, the mayor is more than eager to get rid of the dogs altogether. The pets are all ditched on a remote island of junk where they fend for themselves, battling each other for scraps of food. This premise makes the film sound grim, but, in classic Anderson tradition, it becomes a brilliant platform for comedy. This aspect shines with flying colors in the opening scene where two packs of dogs prepare for a showdown, only to casually postpone to observe if the remnants of tossed out food is worth chewing off an ear.
The leader of the most dominant and talkative pack is Chief (Bryan Cranston), a black dog with the dirtiest fur and most shadowy past. His will to survive makes him hesitant to help the young boy Atari (Koyu Rankin) that has crash-landed on their island to find his own dog. But with the quirky dog followers voiced by the likes of Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, and Jeff Goldblum in tow, it’s hard to say no to an adventure. Naturally, their journey will lead to them meeting other odd mutts by the familiar Anderson troupe regulars, as well as a B plot of the plucky foreign-exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig) trying to unravel the dog flu conspiracy.
Much of Anderson’s love for rustic stop-motion he delivered in The Fantastic Mr. Fox is once more present. Characters will get into scuffles that create dust clouds of ruffled cotton, dog fur will flow with a certain flawed grace, and small creases can be seen in the expressions of the humans. I especially dug how all television footage is portrayed with hand-drawn animation, adding an extra layer of artificialness to this world’s dated technologies bound by reels of black and white. The medium works exceptionally well for Anderson who loves staging and positioning with long and close-up shots that always look astonishingly beautiful. Now with full control of a stop-motion environment, he creates dozens of memorable shots that are both originally beautiful and loving homages. Most of the first act is staged almost exactly like The Seven Samurai in terms of shot composition, character visuals, and even the music.
I also dug Anderson’s unique choice in language. The opening prologue states that the Japanese characters will speak their native language, sometimes translatable through English translators, other times through subtitles, and sometimes no translation at all. American characters will speak English. Dog characters will have their language translated into English. Making this gap further complex is the present future tech of a dog translator that Atari uses to communicate with his dog. Smart move; I could only imagine how many times Atari would ask “what is it, boy?” before the old Lassie bit looses its teeth and applies for retirement.
Isle of Dogs has a story so strange to tell in a world most fascinating that it could only come from Anderson and only exist in animation. There’s intelligence to its worldly witty players, but still an ease of simple jokes about misbehaving pets. There’s tragedy and violence, but it is always presented with an eerie passivity and bluntness that darkly amuses. The world is corrupt and dystopian, but with a surreal beauty that makes great use of the full control in a stop-motion production. Of course, a question may arise among parents; can the kids see it? Sure, in the same sense that kids would be okay with the likes of Watership Down and Plague Dogs, with their frank talk and blunt violence. It’s amazing those films were even made, but I’m glad they found a way into the theater and that Isle of Dogs is another picture that fits snugly in with that bunch of challenging and unorthodox animated movies.