It’s no secret that I’m a Wes Anderson fangirl. If there’s a Wes Anderson-esque post or meme on social media, friends tag me. There’s a Wes Anderson Week on Instagram every year and I play along with images of symmetry, family, nostalgia, and overhead shots (do yourself a favor and start following #wesandersonstyle). I once dressed a vintage portrait to look like Royal Tenenbaum for a party room with those Reservoir Geek guys (you heard of them?). What can I say? The man’s got a style I can’t help but admire.
Despite my love for Mr. Anderson’s work and all the inspiration it affords me, I have to confess that I went to see Isle of Dogs with great trepidation. Why? To be honest, Anderson’s last two films, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom, weren’t my favorite. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still great… they just aren’t my favorite. But they aren’t my least favorite, either. That would be Fantastic Mr. Fox. Hence my sense of trepidation.
Anderson’s previous undertaking of an animal stop-motion film was charming and stylistic, but it was derivative and it just didn’t click with me. I was worried Isle of Dogs would be the same, albeit with an original story this time around. From what I’d read online as the film was being made, I wondered if Anderson could successfully navigate such a cultural departure, not to mention focusing on an entirely different species, from his usual work. I am so happy to report that my fears were unfounded because, doggone it, I absolutely loved Isle of Dogs.
From the opening credits until the final seconds, I was enchanted, both by the quietly humorous, though at times dark, story and the stunning cinematography. Written by Wes Anderson with two of his previous cohorts, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, along with newcomer Kunichi Nomura, Isle of Dogs tells the story of flu-ridden canines in a not-too-distant-future Japan who are exiled by the government to Trash Island. A young boy, Atari (aka The Little Pilot), risks his life flying to the island to rescue his beloved guard dog Spots; after crashing on the island, he encounters a ragtag gang of alpha dogs who agree (one of them, grudgingly) to help reunite The Little Pilot and Spots. And the hero’s journey archetype commences. But who exactly is the hero? I won’t spoil it for you.
The stop-motion in Isle of Dogs was effortlessly detailed and really quite amazing. It had no ambition to be cutting edge and lifelike, nor was it distractingly opposite and clunky. In between moments of wondering how many hours of production it took to meticulously shift and film every tiny movement, a cloud of cotton batting comically sufficed as the dirt kicked up in a (sometimes gruesome) dog pack scuffle. It didn’t take itself too seriously and it was perfect. My favorite stylistic touch in Isle of Dogs was the incorporation of Japanese 2D animation. Any scene visualized through a screen, be it television, radar, or messaging screen, was rendered in beautifully flat and stylistically opposite 2D animation. It was a wonderful juxtaposition that Anderson wouldn’t have been able to pull off in a live-action film and I loved it.
Of course, there are plenty of signature Wes Anderson traits sprinkled throughout the film if that’s what you’re looking for: symmetry unleashed from the get-go; clever color schemes (the colors of Japan were bold and intense, while the colors of Trash Island were muted and dusty); an eclectic soundtrack featuring works by Alexandre Desplat, songs from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Drunken Angels, and jangly psychedelic folk rock vibes from The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band; and an ensemble cast of now-beloved Wes Anderson regulars: Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Frances McDormand, and Tilda Swinton, to name a few. Anderson newcomer Bryan Cranston was great as the gruff Chief, as was Koyu Rankin as the kind-hearted and determined Atari.
I went to see the movie with a group of friends and, afterwards, we all chatted about which dog was our favorite (mine were Oracle and Duke - he just likes to gossip) and which parts made us cry (because you’re gonna cry). Isle of Dogs is about unlikely friendships, despotic governments (you can decide how much you want to read into the politics), vulnerability, and perseverance. Most importantly, it will also make you want to go home and give your best dog buddy a scratch and if it doesn’t, you have no feelings. Or you just don’t like dogs and that’s okay, too... I guess. While it didn’t quite knock out my first place Wes Anderson film (The Royal Tenenbaums, always and forever), Isle of Dogs made a quick leap to the top of the list. Two enthusiastic paws up.