Isle of Dogs is a stop-motion animated fantasy about a boy in search of his exiled dog, and the dogs (and people) who help along the way. It was written and directed by Wes Anderson, and stars Koyu Rankin, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and many more.
Let me start by saying that although I’ve not seen every film Wes Anderson has made, I have adored all those that I have seen, and so I – like many others – went into Isle of Dogs with high hopes. How could I not? He has set high standards, with each film being more witty, sharply written and stylish than the last. I haven’t seen his other stop-motion film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, though, and two of my favorite animated films are stop-motion titles by other directors (Coraline and Kubo and The Two Strings), so on that front, the bar was set high, too. Basically, I went in daring him to wow me.
And how could he not with this cast? Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum play a gang of outcast (former pet) dogs, with Bryan Cranston as a stray who kind of joins and tries to lead them. The supporting cast includes Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel and Yoko Ono of all people. What could go wrong?
The setting for Isle of Dogs is Japan “twenty years in the future”, after a brief prologue explaining where the enmity between dogs and the Kobayashi dynasty came from. The current head of the Kobayashis is the mayor of Megasaki; and he brings a bill evicting all dogs to Trash Island, as many of them have become sick with dog flu and snout fever, and there are fears that these maladies may cross species. As a gesture of commitment, he starts with Spots, the dog who guards his own ward, Atari. And it is Atari who steals a small plane to go and find Spots a year later, the only human “master” to demonstrate such commitment to their animal.
And there lies the theme of the film: commitment, whether in the sense of loyalty to friends, duty to master, or devotion to a cause. It is everywhere throughout the story, amongst animals and humans alike, though for the most part, the animals are seen as more loyal than the humans.
Over half the film is set on Trash Island, which – as you’d expect – is a pretty dismal place. The animals are sick and undernourished, it’s essentially one big toxic rubbish dump, but – despite not being as uniformly tidy as WALL-E‘s world – it’s rather beautiful and fascinating in parts. As Atari searches for his dog, he has a guided tour of the island from a cart that takes trash to be compacted. But his journey includes walls of pipes in one area, multicolored glass bottles in another, and it’s quite remarkable just how much variety there can be in a dump site.
Now about the setting. I confess I was more than a little wary, having read accusations of cultural appropriation, stereotypes and so on. But by the end of the film, although there are a few cliches here and there, I’m pretty sure that Anderson set the tale in Japan simply because there are aspects of the culture that he loves and that look great; it’s an affectionate view, not a mickey-taking in the slightest. Granted there could have been a bit more care taken over use of language and names, but it cannot have been at all easy, especially if he was trying to reach a wide audience.
On that note, although Isle of Dogs is rated PG (in the UK), do not make the mistake of assuming it is a children’s film, as I did. Many will not be comfortable with subtitles, or with the high quantity of Japanese speech presented with no translation. Many would find it slow paced, or too dark; an early fight results in an ear ripped off, and there are several mentions of suicide. Funnily enough, my son found the kidney surgery more palatable than I did, and he appreciated most of the humor; but I think he enjoyed it basically for the story and the animation. And for child audiences who can get past the obstacles I mentioned, that is perfectly fine. For us adults, there are also some lovely tributes to Japanese film and music, as well as witty dialogue and plenty of meticulous details and artistic skills to admire.
I admired and enjoyed Isle of Dogs hugely. I’m slightly disappointed to say I didn’t love it, though not far off. It did not grab my heart just yet, like Moonrise Kingdom or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou did. But I would happily watch it again, and would not be surprised if it grew on me more.