Isle of Dogs is a morality play that’s a little too appropriate right now. There were times that the story was so on-the-nose with its message that I winced. Regardless, Wes Anderson has created yet another masterpiece. Here’s my review.
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In Isle of Dogs, 12-year-old Atari is adopted by Mayor Kobayashi, his uncle, after his parents are killed. Mayor Kobayashi assigns a guard dog to Atari, named Spots, and the two of them become fast friends. Soon after, some of the dogs in the city get sick with Dog Flu and Snout Fever. To keep the city residents safe, Mayor Kobayashi orders all dogs — even Spots — to be exiled to Trash Island. Atari then steals an airplane and heads to Trash Island to rescue his dog.
As the movie progresses, we learn that Mayor Kobayashi has a secret, dark agenda. He has completely fooled his constituents for his own personal gain. When the truth comes out, Atari and the Trash Island dogs find a new purpose in exposing him.
Isle of Dogs is a stop-motion animation movie and has an amazing amount of detail. Both the characters and the sets are full of small touches that must have taken hours, nay days, to film. (The Boxtrolls, another stop-motion animation movie, took a week to film just one or two minutes.) Anderson’s previous stop-motion animation movie was Fantastic Mr. Fox, which was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Oscar.
My first impression of Isle of Dogs was bleak. I don’t mean my expectations or my enjoyment of the film was bleak. I mean, every landscape in Isle of Dogs is bleak. Most of the set design was made up of varying shades of gray and white. The look of the movie reflects the seemingly hopeless mission Atari, a.k.a. the Little Pilot, undertakes.
I occasionally found myself wishing I could pause scenes to take in the whole picture. However, the story was so engrossing that I rarely took my eyes off the action. And the movie relies almost solely on action. There’s very little dialog, overall. Even then most of the dialog is in Japanese, with English subtitles provided.
Setting Isle of Dogs in Japan is a genius way of shining a light on the current politics in the U.S. If it were set in America, the story would be almost literal: An elected leader uses his position to fill his own coffers. Also, Mayor Kobayashi kidnaps and discredits a scientist. He holds science hostage and convinces the population it’s in their best interest. By moving Isle of Dogs to Japan, American audiences can look at the story from afar. And getting distance from a situation allows one to see it more clearly.
Other elements of Isle of Dogs lend themselves to Anderson’s message. A group of young rebels spend their time protesting and searching for the truth. They, and Atari, are depicted as the city’s hope for the future. Plus, the media is portrayed as frenzied and gullible.
Atari’s rescue mission seems like the main story in Isle of Dogs, but really, it’s just the vehicle Anderson uses to tell a cautionary tale about fear mongering, divisive politics and greedy leaders. Sound familiar?
One of Anderson’s talents is casting the right people, and he frequently uses the same people. Cast members Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, and Tilda Swinton are Anderson regulars. (Jason Schwartzman, who is usually in Anderson’s films, is absent from the Isle of Dogs cast, but was one of the writers.) Each of them has Anderson’s style down pat. They deliver their lines very close to the microphone, which makes them sound like they’re speaking in your ear. And they use an almost monotone voice, punctuated by well-timed pauses.
The craftsmanship alone is worth the price of admission. Although Isle of Dogs has a simpler story than Fantastic Mr. Fox, it has a much more important message: Resist and never give up.