Writer and director Wes Anderson is well-known for quirky characters, masterfully over-composed and stylized shots and fantastic stories. A whole new world opened up for him when he switched to animation with the stop-motion feature “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and for a meticulous, fantasy-rich filmmaker this is Anderson at his top form. With “Isle of Dogs,” Anderson tries the sensation for the second time. Here, he takes his attention-to-detail to another level with a heartfelt story wrapped in the smoothest stop-motion animation possible.
Twenty years in the future there’s a dog flu outbreak in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki. Evil mayor Kobayashi bans all dogs to a nearby trash island to control the disease as a response. Ironically, he’s the one responsible for the outbreak: It’s a cat-lover’s scheme to permanently get rid of dogs.
Kobayashi’s foster-child, Atari, is the first to lose his best friend, the bodyguard canine Spot. But Spot is just one of many. A whole population of “spoiled lap dogs” is suddenly on their own, scrapping trash island for food while being plagued by constant sneezing, one of the symptoms of the canine flu. A month later, Atari steals a plane and crash-lands on the island, where he is saved by Rex, King, Duke, Boss, and Chief, a pack of dogs who decide to help the kid look for Spot. Meanwhile, back on the mainland, the scientist Watanabe is close to finding a cure for the dog flu, which would destroy Kobayashi’s ploy.
The amount of concepts that went into this movie is unbelievable. Anderson lifts storytelling in dimensions only Charlie Kaufman’s fantasy could keep track with. The story masterfully unfolds in flashbacks, flash forwards, diagrams, and little anime-inspired sections.
Just to give away a few: The preparation of a sushi dinner with a special ingredient or the sequence where the dog vaccination is approved by an automated pseudo-scientific process stand out the most.
All scenes in Megasaki are in Japanese, but fortunately for the viewer there’s almost always an interpreter on standby to translate. On the island, where Atari is the only human around clear, concise actions do the speaking. Only the dogs, whose barking is announced by a title card to be rendered in English, are wondering, “I wish someone would speak his language.”
For “Isle of Dogs,” Anderson was also able to step up his animation game. While “Fantastic Mr. Fox” was already praised for its warm and handmade style, his team improved their technique. One of the best ever to be captured on celluloid, Anderson delivered an even more flawless stop-motion. The movement is flawless and every spoken word is in sync with the mouths of the highly detailed puppets.
As always in a Wes Anderson movie the production design is colorful, fantastic and borderline overwhelming yet a very controlled arrangement.
Even though he toned down his notorious fixation with symmetry, most apparent in “Moonrise Kingdom,” this film clearly reflects Anderson’s style, and this is one of his most complete movies so far. He really set the bar high this time.
Anderson always manages to cast a top-shelf ensemble including his favorite collaborator Bill Murray. He, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Jeff Goldblum, and Scarlett Johansson not only lend the dogs their voices, they also give them a soul. While interpreters Frances McDormand and Greta Gerwig make sure we don’t get lost in translation, it is really amazing how well the actors are cast, and they do a tremendous job. This is definitely one of this year’s best ensemble casts.
“Isle of Dogs” is phonetically the same as “I love Dogs,” and it’s pretty clear Anderson is not a cat person. However, this is not only a film for dog lovers but for the whole family over 13 years of age.
Most of the time this requires for the filmmaker to include a layer of adult humor unbeknownst to the kids, but Anderson is much more inventive than that. He much rather indulge parents with nostalgia and the rest with a warm and optimistic story that still has some dark tones and lots of edginess.
It doesn’t take much to draw parallels from dogs being sent to a distant island and current events. But, thankfully Anderson knows when to tone it down and counter by approaching darkness with warm humor. He achieves a perfect balance here.
The only problem with “Isle of Dogs” is that Anderson has set the bar too high. Now, it will be hard to go surpass it. But being a standard-setter, whatever Anderson does next will prove me wrong. I’m not worried at all. (10/10)
Isle of Dogs (2018)
Written & directed by Wes Anderson
Story by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwarzman, Kunichi Nomura
With Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Kunichi Nomura, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Harvey Keitel, Liev Schreiber, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Frank Wood, Akira Ito, Koyu Rankin, Courtney B. Vance
Produced by Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, Jeremy Dawson
Music by Alexandre Desplat
Cinematography by Tristan Oliver
Edited by Ralph Foster, Edward Bursch
101 min, PG-13
Frankly, I’d stop here re: summary of the film. You may have to move this to another part of the review. Don’t offer too much detail upfront.