Wes Anderson’s newest film “Isle of Dogs,” originally released on March 23, has finally made it to Oxford theaters and has most definitely been worth the wait.
Set in a near-future Japan where all dogs have been expelled to the nearby “Trash Island” in response to a massive outbreak of snout fever among the dog population, “Isle of Dogs” follows the journey of Atari Kobayashi, voiced by Koyu Rankin, as he tries to reconnect with his beloved guard dog Spots, voiced by Liev Schreiber. Atari is helped along the way by a wise-cracking, rumor-craving pack of abandoned dogs led by Chief, voiced by Bryan Cranston. Things are going well for the troupe until they discover a conspiracy led by Atari’s uncle, Mayor Kobayashi, that threatens the end of dogkind, and only Atari and his newfound furry friends can stop it.
When describing “Isle of Dogs,” the first word that comes to mind is “precise.” In a stop-motion film, precision is the tool of the trade. A single scene can take months to position and prepare, and any slight disturbance can mean complete destruction of all the progress that has been made, but “Isle of Dogs” goes above and beyond the average stop-motion film’s attention to detail. Every object on the screen matches the color palette and mood of the scene perfectly; every doggy-ear twitch syncs with the punch line of a joke; cultural references are dripping with detail and respect. In “Isle of Dogs,” everything just fits into a charming 1-hour and 41-minute package.
One of the most compelling aspects of “Isle of Dogs” is its fantastic voice work. The film opens with a disclaimer telling the audience that the characters of the film would all be speaking in their native tongues and that these lines would not be translated unless a translator was active in the scene. However, all dog barks would be in English. Surprisingly, the film followed through on this disclaimer. There is not a translator for a large portion of the Japanese that is spoken, and the viewers’ understanding comes only from context and from the dogs’ perspectives. The communication barrier between the dog pack and the human characters is a unique plot device that manages to contribute to hilarious and touching moments in the plot without ever feeling forced.
“Isle of Dogs” is a good example of how to make a respectful film about another culture. In an age of whitewashing in Hollywood, it is refreshing to hear Japanese spoken in a movie set in Japan and see traditions treated with respect rather than adulteration. “Isle of Dogs” serves as a shocking example of cultural reverence for an American stop-motion comedy – an attribute which stems from Anderson’s notorious precision. Though lesser directors would slap the idea of Japanese culture onto their film and settle with that, Anderson sees anything short of authentic portrayal as a slight to his character and the character of what he is representing.
Even if you go into a Wes Anderson movie completely blind, you already know a few things about the film. You will see some form of strained family or orphaned boy storyline, there will be dry humor, Bill Murray will make an appearance, there will be a significant number of symmetrical camera shots and you can bet your life savings that there will be a pastel color palette. For many, these attributes make Anderson’s films seem more stylish than substantive, but that is most definitely not the case with “Isle of Dogs.” If the Anderson skeptic was correct, then “Isle of Dogs” would not be a film that respects and builds off pre-existing cultural traditions, would not be a film with models so intricate that they appear to have lives of their own and would not be a film with such breathtaking beauty and tear-worthy laughter. In short, it would not be a Wes Anderson film.
Whether you are a lover of Wes Anderson or you see his films as predictable, hipster, indie darlings, it would be hard to leave “Isle of Dogs” without a grin on your face. It is just that “dog-gone” charming.