Japan. Twenty years in the future. A plague of canine diseases tears through Megasaki city, leading to an executive decree exiling all dogs to nearby Trash Island. Barely surviving, a pack of ex-pets (including the voices of Jeff Goldblum and Bryan Cranston) come to the aid of a young boy (Koyu Rankin) who crash lands on the island searching for his dog.
After suggestions of the animal cruelty themes in past movies stemming from a real-life dislike of our four-legged friends, Wes Anderson does his bit to address these criticisms with a warm and delightful visual spectacular celebrating canine courage. The homophonic title (I-love Dogs) says it all.
I’m going to say it – Anderson’s engaging familial tales and unique story-telling make him one of the most distinguishable directors around today. With a direction so meticulous and a writing style wrought from pure whimsy it’s nearly self-parodying, time after time he delivers excellent cinema.
Isle of Dogs is no different.
His first stop-motion feature after the chaotic Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’ second go at the animation board shows a lot more depth than 2009’s effort. The visuals are breath-taking, the world a meticulous construction of Japanese zeitgeist combined with Western sensibility – a curious and interesting mash-up that kept me hooked throughout. A lot has been made of the film appropriating Japanese culture and parading these elements shallowly. To me, the setting of every one of his works is mere dressing. Whether set in futuristic Japan, a New England island or under the sea, his locations are decorative shells containing similar themes of family dysfunction within. To say Isle of Dogs is only superficially Japanese is true – in that all of Anderson’s works have surface layer of colour that hides the real story beneath.
The cast, as expected, put in some wonderful performances. While regulars like Bill Murray and Tilda Swindon (who steals the show briefly as a prophetic pug) are back, it’s some of the new talent that excels. Bryan Cranston wows as Chief, and his scenes with love interest Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansen) are laced with excitement and humour. The Japanese speaking cast, led by Koyu Rankin, deliver too despite the language barrier (helped by the wonderful animators). While Anderson’s cast ensemble means individual stars sometimes fail to shine, as a whole it works.
But it’s in the excellent script and direction that the film blooms. Without a strong story, the film could have just hung its success on the fact there were dogs around. But each character was full, vivid, and advanced the plot (if only via Anderson’s peculiar path). At a tight 101 minutes, it doesn’t drag on as many modern movies do. It simply tells a wonderful story, captures your heart, drags you through some surprisingly bleak and tense moments, and then releases you back into the real – and less interesting – world. Another triumph for the most interesting filmmaker around.
A visual treat, this courageous tale perfectly blends the joy of a tummy scratch, the exhilaration of a walk and the dread of a vet trip. 8.5/10.