I feel like reviewing Wes Anderson’s latest film Isle of Dogs is almost an exercise in futility. Any filmgoer should know by watching the trailer if this film is your cup of tea or not. Anderson has his own unique style that does not appeal to everyone, but fortunately it appeals to yours truly and since animation is my thing I had to review it! (One of my friends from church asked me if I was going to see ‘that horrific looking dog film’ so that shows you how different the response can be to the trailer!).
Isle of Dogs is Wes Anderson’s second foray into the world of animation; his first being the 2009 animated film Fantastic Mr Fox. I recently did a collaboration with my friend Justin on his channel where I shared my thoughts on that film, so check that out:
While I enjoy Fantastic Mr Fox a great deal, I think I actually preferred Isle of Dogs. It’s weirder and more simplistic narratively but I laughed more and found it more charming to watch. I really thought Isle of Dogs was a great time at the movies.
Isle of Dogs tells the story of a dystopian futuristic Japan that has banished all dogs to a Trash Island. This is done out of fear over a dog flu which is hyped up by the tyrannical rule of Mayor Kobayashi. This was hilarious for me because the company I work for is called Kobayashi America, a branch of Kobayashi Pharmaceuticals in Japan,which is mentioned in the film! Luckily everyone I work with is completely lovely. No dictators present!
Anyway, Kobayashi is made a ward over a nephew named Atari who he then sends his beloved dog Spots to Trash Island. Atari, desperate for his dog, steals a plane and flies to Trash Island. Upon landing he meets 5 dogs: Rex, King, Duke, Boss and Chief. They are all eager to help find Spots except for Chief who is cynical and just trying to survive another day.
The rest of the story is pretty simple with the dogs and Atari traveling to find Spots and facing various challenges along the way. The joy of the film is the droll dialogue from the dogs and the sweet moments between boy and dogs. There is also a subplot with an exchange student named Tracy who investigates Kobayashi but the real fun is spending time with the dogs.
There are so many things to praise about Isle of Dogs. First, the animation is just tremendous. I honestly don’t know how they were able to do the fur and make it seem so lush and textured. These are not the clay figures of Rankin Bass or other old-school stop motion animated animals. It blew me away. I also loved the textures in all the backdrops and props. There are a lot of scenes behind walls of glass and the colors reminded me of a Chihuly art glass exhibit. Simply stunning! They could have used bare-bones backgrounds but they chose to go the extra mile and fill the screen with textured details and color. If the Academy wasn’t so closed minded I could see it getting nominated for best production design.
The voice cast is also fantastic with many Anderson regulars such as Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Tilda Swinton and many more. It is narrated by Courtney B Vance and the music is superb by Alexandre Desplat.
I suppose if someone were to push me for flaws in Isle of Dogs I would admit that a white savior trope is applied to the story in an unnecessary way. Anderson makes the choice to have the Japanese characters speak Japanese with little to no subtitles, which I thought was really neat. However, it necessitated having an English character confront Kobayashi so that we would know what she was doing. I’m not sure how he could have gotten around that, but I can see why some would complain about it.
It’s also not supposed to be an accurate depiction of Japanese life. It reminded me of anime in that regard. Films like Akira or Ghost in the Shell also use Japan as a dystopian futuristic background to tell their stories, so any cultural appropriation should be taken with a massive grain of salt. Any culture should be allowed to have a wide variety of takes and stories set in it, so I don’t think it is a problem but I’m not Japanese. It will be interesting to see the response to this film over there. I could see them being offended or flattered. It was cool at least that Anderson took some risks with language and storytelling that made it unpredictable to watch.
Like I said in my intro, if you watched the trailer for Isle of Dogs and responded positively to it then you should definitely see it. I’m certainly glad I did, and I look forward to seeing it multiple times. Incredibles 2 has a tall order to top it in my best animated film of the year list. We will see!
Overall Grade A- Smile Worthy
Here is a podcast I did with my friend Conrado on the film