A Wes Anderson film about dogs is such an appealing concept that I was pretty much sold on Isle of Dogs before even getting into the theatre, but I’ll admit to still being surprised by the love and warmth Anderson continues to bring to his films. Isle of Dogs marks the ninth picture by the distinctive auteur director, and despite his filmic style evoking countless imitators and parodies his techniques never seem forced or artificial. Instead it feels like a singular story by a peculiar mind that could only be told in this way.
For a director as particular about production design as Anderson working in animation seems a logical decision, particularly stop-motion where the textures on each model can really come through. Nearly every frame is precisely arranged and awash with colour, even those on the grey and gritty garbage island, and the puppet designs of the canine characters lend them sweetness within their coarse hairs and scars. While 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox was a faithful adaptation of a classic Roald Dahl story presented with all of Anderson’s famous flourishes, Isle of Dogs allows him to make something entirely new. Drawing heavily on Japanese storytelling traditions to the point of opening with a Kabuki-styled expositional narration, the screenplay presents a dystopian view of Japan in the near future where all dogs have been cast out of the fictional city of Megasaki due to a widespread dog flu and sent to live on Trash Island. The first dog exiled belongs to the man behind the decision, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), but also happens to be the security dog of Kobayashi’s orphaned nephew and ward Atari (Koyu Rankin). Desperate to find and rescue the dog, Spots, Atari crash-lands a stolen plane onto Garbage Island and teams up with a group of dogs to find him and reveal the true extent of Kobayashi’s plans – even if they don’t necessarily speak each other’s language.
The language difference plays a vital role in how characters in Isle of Dogs, with many of Atari’s lines spoken through un-subtitled Japanese while the dogs communicate amongst themselves in English. While some scenes do contain either subtitles or translations through interpreters (primarily the comforting voice of Frances McDormand) the need to understand exactly what was being said quickly becomes irrelevant. Atari’s thoughts and feelings are easy to read through both his delightful character animation and the strength of the bond that naturally forms between a boy and his dog. Said dog characters are almost irresistibly lovable, with models that perfectly capture all those quirks and intricacies that make pooches such popular pets and each voiced to absolute perfection by an astonishing cast including Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murry, and F. Murray Abraham. It’s primarily the voice of Bryan Cranston as Chief, a life-long stray that adamantly refuses to have any sort of master, that really carries the emotions of the film. Cranston’s naturally gruff voice is ideal for such a character, and he gradually brings a softness into how he delivers each line as Chief opens himself up. The sheer amount of personality displayed through both the designs and vocal performances brings these very good dogs to life and demonstrates why people are able to form such strong connections with them, to the point that both pet and owner are able to do anything to protect the other.
Those who struggle to appreciate Anderson’s distinctive style aren’t going to be won over by Isle of Dogs, as all of his favourite techniques are on full display here, and the conversation about how he uses Japanese cultural elements is a larger and more complicated one than I know how to get involved in. But for how he blends the visuals, the lightness of a family-friendly story that never shies away from darker implications, Alexandre Desplat’s stylistically varied soundtrack, and the sheer charm of his characters, Isle of Dogs stole my heart completely.