There are few working directors whose entire filmography is so uniquely stylized that the man or woman behind the camera becomes a genre onto themselves and Wes Anderson is perhaps the most grandiose example of that fact. His last three films; The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), & The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) have each been masterful productions of Wes Anderson and his latest film, The Isle of Dogs (2018), is no exception. Like The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Isle of Dogs is a work of stop-motion animation that fits so snuggly in Wes Anderson’s unique brand of visual storytelling. The film’s plot is relatively simple but by no means is it any less layered or complex than any of this other screenplays. And if you hadn’t guessed already, it looks incredible from start to finish. Wes Anderson has become one those directors audiences either love or hate so for those who already love ’his work you’ve probably already seen the movie or are planning on seeing it already. But if that's the case then just let me say this I think this may be an (if not the) perfect Wes Anderson film. At least that’s what I’m telling myself in preemptive justification while I catch two-three more screenings in theaters whilst I can.
Much like Wes Anderson’s last animated extravaganza, The Isle of Dogs takes place in the dystopian story-book fantasy city of Megasaki; a fictional metropolis in the not-so-distant future of Japan. Here the duplicitous Mayor Kobayashi issues an immediate deportation of all inner city canines to an island of trash and despair where survival is as vital as it is brutal. The island is invaded, however, by twelve-year-old Atari Kobayashi (voiced by Koyu Rankin) in a hijacked airplane in search of his banished best friend Spots. Upon landing on Trash Island Atari befriends a pack of “scary indestructible alpha dogs” who are all good boys at heart (same as all dogs, really) voiced by Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, & Jeff Goldblum respectably. The pack agrees to help the little pilot, and from there the plot bisects into two parallel narratives; one following Atari and the dogs on a hero’s journey rescue mission which is presented wonderfully with enough action and emotional moments that you’ll forget at times that your getting worked up over literal puppets. The second follows an American foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) using her wits and persistence as a junior sleuth in search of the truth behind Mayor Kobayashi’s deplorable decree. Both stories intersect in the third act that brings everything and everyone together in a satisfying conglomerate of a conclusion that feels as earned as it is whimsically sweet. Tonally it has everything you’d expect from Wes at this point by structurally this is one his most imaginative and “out there” tales that audiences of all ages should be able to find immense joy and entertainment.
And speaking of value, if this film’s total artistic worth could be converted into coins, it’d have its own vault at Gringotts that would be guarded 24/7 by a legendary hydra with seven heads of Bill Murray. Anyway, film positives; the editing/cinematography is silky-smooth in that typical flat-composition style that Wes Anderson adores so much and lo and behold, it translates flawlessly into animation. Though I’ve only had one screening of this beautiful, beautiful film, I was utterly blown away by the sheer craftsmanship that went into this production. Everything from sets to the lighting to the way in which each dog puppet acts and moves like a real animal is an absolute joy to bear witness. And when you take into consideration that it took Wes’s team four years to complete the animation process with roughly 3 seconds of usable footage taken for every 10-12 hour day, it makes every minute detail feel that much more magnificent. As I’ve mentioned before, the story is genuinely brilliant despite being relatively simple. None of its messages or reveals are overly complicated, but that’s all due to Anderson’s ability to plant vital information to the plot early on but disguising them as his own brand of quirky comedy. This may also be the most emotional Wes Anderson film (for me). Wes Anderson has always made his movies to be reflective of profound and troubled emotional truths but choices to have his characters give this information honestly and drolly, a trait which as now become sinuous with Wes’s “style.” I suppose one could argue that this dissonance of speaking openly in such an emotionally detached way is stylistic for the sake of being stylistic but in this film, only the dogs ever talk in such a way. Everyone other human character speaks with very prominent emotion, which helps when the bulk of one’s human cast members primarily speak in non-subtitled Japanese, but it also drives home the predicament of the dogs themselves. It makes sense why man’s best friend would talk like, well, a Wes Anderson character because of the situation in which the film has put them in. This makes the emotional connection snap almost instantly as you feel the pain these good boys feel when they engage in Steinbeckian dialogues about their favorite foods and old owners. And finally I’d like to gush briefly about a sequence of scenes that caught my attention; each was shot with a long take of some action without dialogue or music. Each scene was an impressive display of art and animation on their own, but upon reflection, I found that they not only looked cool but were integral to the plot. What’s more is that I found myself playing out these scenes in my head as if they were a kind of visual haiku and it worked. This may indeed just be me projecting greater artistic significance to a few isolated scenes that I liked but seeing as how this film incorporated trunk loads of uniquely Japanese customs (including haiku poems) I wouldn’t be surprised if he did something like that on purpose. This is after all the same guy who bought an actual 1958 British minesweeper ship for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou; I wouldn’t put anything past the guy.
As a Wes Anderson fan, it’s hard to compare his newest film to the others in his repertoire. I didn’t have as much fun as I did with Fantastic Mister Fox. Nor I wasn’t charmed like I was at the end of The Grand Budapest Hotel. And I certainly didn’t fall in love as I did for Moonrise Kingdom, but out of all my favorite Wes Anderson films, I don’t think I was ever as impressed as I was for The Isle of Dogs. If you were to judge this film solely on the merits of being a movie you’d still have one humdinger of a picture; with heaps and HEAPS of Wes Anderson whimsy frosted on for flavoring. Wes Anderson has been noted as being a “connoisseur of life,” and one can see that in his films as each picture is saturated with things Wes finds interesting. The Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s homage and a love letter to all things Japanese from art, music, movies, theatre, food, stories, and more. While that’s to be expected from a Wes Anderson movie taking place in Japan what’s most impressive is his ability to craft a story that not only fits so perfectly in its world it stands on its own four legs as a brilliant and emotionally rich story that can only be described as beautiful. This is one of those movies that progressively gets better and better the more you think about it, and I’m sure the same can be said for repetitive viewings. The Isle of Dogs is currently playing at the Varsity theatre in downtown Davis, so be sure to catch as many screenings while you still can.