Given the huge commercial, critical, and awards success enjoyed by The Grand Budapest Hotel, four years seems a long time for Wes Anderson to follow up his career-best film. Just a few frames into Isle of Dogs, though, and you’ll understand exactly why we had to wait. This is an astonishing piece of animation, every inch of every frame packed with imagination, detail, and hand-crafted care, and it must have taken an absurd amount of time and effort to create. This visual wonderment is at the centre of what makes Isle of Dogs great, an involving but slight story bolstered by superb direction and art.
Set in the futuristic Japanese city of Megasaki, Anderson builds a world in which dogs have been outlawed after an outbreak of Dog Flu and Snout Fever. Banished to the grim prison of Trash Island, the mutts are growing hungry and sickly until one dog-loving human, the 12 year old Atari (Koyu Rankin) steals a plane to Trash Island to find his beloved pet Spots. Crash landing, Atari is greeted by a pack of alpha dogs, led by former stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), who, moved by his devotion to Spots, agree to help him search.
All the dogs have magnificent designs, immediately identifiable in any group shots and injured and mangy enough to fit the aesthetic whilst remaining adorable. It really can’t be overstated just how stunning Isle of Dogs is visually. The stop-motion animation itself is the perfect mix of fluidity and silliness, backdrops are wildly fun to look at, and there’s a new colour palette to differentiate every setting. Anderson and his team are clearly enjoying themselves, and little touches like TV screens rendered as 2D drawings create a style that is utterly unique. Action scenes are very funny – every fight is hidden by a Looney Tunes style cotton-wool dust cloud – but never consequence free; Anderson isn’t shy about inflicting damage on his canine heroes.
This gruesomeness, while not gratuitous (this is a PG film after all), may prove distressing for younger audiences, and is just one example of Isle of Dogs refusing to play to genre conventions. It’s an animation about talking animals, but isn’t quite a kids’ film and nor is it an outright comedy like a lot of Anderson’s work. There are some inspired visual gags and occasional dense, joke-packed conversations, but these are interspersed with a more serious adventure story, one that moves at a rollicking pace regardless of how funny it’s being.
Back in Megasaki, there’s a conspiracy afoot involving corrupt mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura, who also co-wrote the script), but this is never really fleshed out. Anderson has faced accusations of cultural appropriation, and I think these criticisms were fair. Though this is obviously a love letter to Japanese culture, and all the Japanese characters are voiced in Japanese, there is a tendency to sometimes uses Japanese-ness as a punchline, a problem exacerbated by the fact that the leader of the pro-dog rebellion is a white American foreign exchange student. For the most part, the film is good natured enough to get away with it, but it’s hard to ignore.
As always, Anderson has assembled a ridiculously impressive cast – so extensive, in fact, that Bill Murray himself gets slightly lost in the shuffle as ex-sports mascot dog Boss. He’s got all his usual suspects involved from Ed Norton as diplomatic pooch Rex to Tilda Swinton as a TV-watching pug known as the Oracle, but also finds room for fresh voices, like Cranston and Scarlett Johansson as former showdog Nutmeg. Jeff Goldblum steals scenes as Duke, a formerly pampered pup who adores gossip, and even Yoko Ono’s cameo as ‘Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono’ fits right in with Isle of Dogs’s world. Only Chief really gets a chance at a character arc, aided by Atari, but it is a moving one.
Alexander Desplat’s percussion-heavy score is fantastic, mixing East and West and sometimes broken up by some very soft licensed songs that make for a soothing accompaniment to Atari’s grand trek through Trash Island’s various regions. Every place has something new to wow you, pyramids of stacked paper giving way to makeshift shelters constructed out of glimmering old beer bottles before becoming more menacingly, clankingly mechanical as the motley crew get closer to their goal. Back in Megasaki, fascistic, authoritarian propaganda hangs heavy over the city, disconcerting at the start and outright chilling towards the finale.
Isle of Dogs, particularly in its final third, doesn’t hold back on the darkness – even if it is all wrapped up a little too neatly. Animals don’t have a great survival record in Anderson’s filmography, so the stakes are high, with some properly upsetting scenes. If nothing else, this hugely original animation will make you want to hold your own dog very close and reassure them that you’ll never send them to Trash Island