Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs fits snugly into that category of animated films where you’re not sure how they were approved for production but appreciate them all the more for existing. In Anderson’s tradition, it is a gorgeous film full of compelling shots, dry comedy, and a dark story with a whimsical atmosphere. Though delivering on everything I love about one of the director’s productions, it also manages to present one of the strangest and most unorthodox stories—the type of stories so bizarre they could only breathe in animation.
In a future in which the 1960s apparently never died, Japan is under attack by a dog flu. Having a rocky history with canines, the mayor of Megasaki City decides to dump all of the infected dogs off on a deserted garbage island—but this will not stand for the mayor’s tenacious nephew, Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), who sets off on an adventure to find his beloved Spots.
Atari crash-lands on the island and finds help in an odd pack of dogs, the most reluctant being the darkly rebellious Chief (Bryan Cranston). There’s a language gap between humans and dogs: the Japanese citizens all speak in Japanese, untranslated except in a few instances, while the dogs all speak English, but only to the audience. When we hear Cranston’s growling, Atari only hears dog snarls. Anderson divulges this early on so we can keep up with the conceit.
We meet many odd and lovable characters along the journey to find the missing Spots, both bipedal and quadrupedal. The dogs themselves are a hoot to watch for the deadpan dialogue set against their fluffy exteriors, but they’re all the more hilarious when serviced by Anderson’s troupe of regulars. Edward Norton is the dog who takes charge of the situation and tries to do the right thing, even when Chief says otherwise. Bob Balaban is the nervous one, Bill Murray the snarky commentator, and Jeff Goldblum the gossip hound that always enters a conversation with a “Have you heard the rumor?” Other doggy oddities include the former show dog Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), the howling tribe leader Gondo (Harvey Keitel), the deeply expositional dog narrator Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham), and the all-knowing pug Oracle (Tilda Swinton), regarded as such for her astounding ability to understand television.
Meanwhile, there’s a conspiracy theory going around Japan about a cure for the dog flu with many strange figures involved, including the snarling mayor (Kunichi Nomura) trying to force through his evil plans to exterminate the dogs. Trying to stop him is the foreign exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig), sticking out with a mouth as big as her blonde afro, who leads her school’s activist club in uncovering the conspiracy. Her story is not as bizarre as Atari’s but still involves a host of notable voice talents to listen for, including a surgeon voiced by Ken Watanabe and a scientist named Yoko Ono and voiced by Yoko Ono. There also seems to be something going on with cats being involved in this scheme, but I don’t think Tracy’s corkboard of conspiracy reaches that far.
In the same way that Anderson finely crafted the rustic appeal of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, there’s a unique charm to the stop-motion animation in Isle of Dogs that’s not polished as the likes of Laika (Kubo and the Two Strings, Coraline) but always has an artistic appeal. There are many scuffles in the film staged with overtly cartoonish, cotton-like clouds of dust that kick up in battle. The ’60s-style setting features old reels for recording and black-and-white televisions that make everyone look two-dimensionally warped. Most of Japan’s technological research seems to have gone into air drones, robot dogs, and communicators that allow humans to understand dogs. What an age. There are an abundance of wasteland settings on the Trash Island that make the continent of garbage look somewhat varied in its sectors and gangs; it’s easily one of Anderson’s most unique worlds, with its sights of dogs traversing abandoned power plants and rusted amusement parks.
Breathing even more beauty into the animation is the director’s knack for staging the most gorgeous shots. You can see the influence of classic Japanese cinema in the first act with staging and blocking indicative of Akira Kurosawa’s work—the most obvious reference being The Seven Samurai, if not for Chief’s outsider nature to depart from the group then for the iconic 1950s epic score of samurai films from the era. This commitment to staging powerful visuals preserves the atmosphere to a degree where the comedy is always droll enough to be witty yet not above an interrupting gag about ticks and doggy treats.
Isle of Dogs has come under fire for its encroachment of Western culture in this Japanese-set story. Naturally, the biggest concern is of Tracy being the white savior who speaks up, particularly for just how white she appears with her big, blonde afro. But while she does play a role in the ultimate conclusion and piecing together the conspiracy, her outsider status—with her frowned-upon uppity nature and her lone dissection of the conspiracy—made her appear to me more like a shoehorned-in Raymond Burr in the American edit of Godzilla. I personally felt Atari was more of the hero considering his engineering expertise, his proficiency with a slingshot, and his determination to push forward for his dog, even when he becomes severely injured along the way. We could dissect the film bit by bit to address the representation of Japanese culture, but I never found it frustratingly confounding enough to take me out of the odd world Anderson has constructed without going through it with a fine-toothed comb. Then again, I’m just some white guy commenting on a white guy’s animated movie that takes place in Japan.
What I ultimately dug most about Isle of Dogs was the teeth it was willing to bear in presenting a wild vision of the future that bites as well as it barks. There’s the ever-present darkness accompanying all of Anderson’s films, where tragedy always seems quietly waiting in the tranquil background to rip off an ear or tear out a heart when we least expect it. That being said, it’s more positive and quirky than the likes of notoriously dark animated films Watership Down and The Plague Dogs, making its messages of fear, devotion, and activism connect more with a fine tap than a thunderous thud. Few animated films are this intelligent, gorgeous, and witty, making Anderson’s commitment to the medium a powerful testament to its full potential. It’s a masterpiece of a movie in which talking dogs have more profound things to say than “Squirrel!”—but are canine enough that I wouldn’t put it past them to have it in the backs of their minds.