Wes Anderson’s latest production, Isle of Dogs, is his ninth feature film and a comfortable fit within his unique sense of cinematic style. Anderson, an American director, is known for his use of symmetry, meticulous design, paced dialogue and a steadily growing ensemble of actors.
The story, written by Anderson along with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura, tells of a boy in search of his dog after an executive decree in the fictional and futuristic Megasaki City banishes all dogs to Trash Island due to an outbreak of Snout-Fever and Dog-Flu.
Anderson famously plans everything in his films down to the tiniest details, with exact storyboards and animatics planning out each shot before shooting begins. This is especially evident in the fact that Isle of Dogs is stop-motion animation, requiring every decision to be rigorously planned out ahead of time, so it can be captured precisely, one frame photographed at a time. This is Anderson’s second stop-motion film, following Fantastic Mr. Fox. Producer Jeremy Dawson noted that the film, not originally planned for this animation style, was filmed in this manner to deal with challenges the film’s design posed.
Anderson delivers a film full of wonderful little moments, especially when it comes to linguistics. Dogs’ barks are rendered into English, while most humans speak in Japanese, but there are still translators and signs that help English-speaking audiences.
The affectations of the translators and the little parentheses around translations are pleasant comedic touches. The words on headbands marking the pro-dog and anti-dog citizens come in a similar vein, as does language like the reference to an “acceptable level” of government corruption.
The plot of Isle of Dogs revolves around a pack of five dogs that decides to help Atari Kobayashi, ward to Mayor Kobayashi, find his dog Spots, who has been brought to Trash Island. The dogs — Chief, Rex, Duke, Boss and King — are not all leads in the film, but the writing team and the voice actors did good work to distinguish each of them from the pack.
Edward Norton plays Rex, the de facto leader of the group of dogs that operates democratically. Norton’s voice stands out with its straight-faced yet comic delivery. Jeff Goldblum and Bill Murray provide impeccably timed lines as Duke and Boss, respectively, while Bob Balaban’s voice entertains in King’s sparsely delivered, high-pitch comments. Bryan Cranston emotionally anchors the film as Chief, the surprise protagonist who professes simply, “I bite.”
There are too many names to attribute praise accordingly, but Greta Gerwig’s performance as foreign-exchange student Tracy Walker is one of the most memorable. F. Murray Abraham is also a praise-worthy addition to the film, as he rightly returns from his role in The Grand Budapest Hotel with his deep, rich voice, providing some stellar narration and filling the role of the wise dog, Jupiter.
The production design is excellent. In the simpler sets, there is the beautiful use of lines that come out of cables that run across Trash Island, carrying rotten food, captured dogs and dangerous drones. Megasaki City is too dense to notice everything in a single viewing, chock-full of little details as it is.
The Town Hall is wonderfully designed, playing off Citizen Kane imagery, mixing menace with bureaucracy for an interesting combination.
Andy Gent, the film’s head puppet maker, said, “I always say that making a stop-motion film is like working in a world that is 12 times smaller than anything you’ve ever seen but 200 times more complex than anything you’ve ever done because we have to make every single thing.” The sentiment is readily felt through the intricate design of the film.
Paul Harrod, one of the production designers, cited the classic Japanese films of Akira Kurosawa and the kaiju films — a Japanese film genre that features giant monsters — of Ishiro Honda as references for Isle of Dogs’ visuals. The Japanese style of woodblock print permeates the film as well, as the history of an animosity for dogs is told through the distinct images.
The film’s score works similarly. Composer Alexandre Desplat seamlessly integrated Japanese music into the score and an opening sequence of taiko drums composed by Kaoru Watanabe is especially riveting, as heard in the film’s trailer.
Still, some took issue with the film’s depiction of Japanese culture. Viewers would do well to read Justin Chang’s review of the film in the Los Angeles Times, which explores sensitivity issues in the film.
Anderson’s film will work for a particular audience. Those who have seen his previous films and judged for themselves whether or not they care for the director’s peculiar tastes will have a fair assessment of whether or not Isle of Dogs is for them. Still, the film’s story is universal and its message of care and love is one that would do well to be heard.
The film’s climax comes, not in a battle to the death, but in a haiku. Isle of Dogs is a special film, melting hearts with the basic emotions caused by a boy and his dog.
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