4 out of 5 stars.
“Whatever happened to man’s best friend?” That’s the question posed by Professor Watanabe to Kobayashi—the cat-loving mayor of Megasaki City on the Japanese coast—just before he signs a decree requiring all the city’s dogs to be sent to the neighboring Trash Island in the wake of a dog flu virus sweeping through the population. But it’s a question that “Isle of Dogs,” the newest film from writer/director Wes Anderson, ponders more from the canines’ perspective than the humans’.
It is six months after the decree is issued that Atari Kobayashi (voiced by Koyu Rankin), a 12-year-old boy who also happens to be the mayor’s distant nephew, decides to fly to Trash Island to look for his dog Spots, the first dog to be banished. After crash-landing, he encounters a pack of dogs who agree to help him look for Spots. The group includes Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), all of whom used to have owners and lead pampered lifestyles, so they agree to help Atari. All agree, that is, except their leader, Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray who is wary of humans. But he gradually warms up to Atari and learns more about himself over the course of their journey, while back in Megasaki City, an pro-dog uprising led by student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) fights to get the dog flu cure to the public before the mayor euthanizes all the dogs on the island.
“Isle of Dogs” is Anderson’s second fully stop-motion animated film, although he uses the technique frequently in his live-action movies, so the look and feel of the animation here is reminiscent of the Wes Anderson style we all know and love (or maybe hate, I dunno). The result is a beautifully detailed and animated movie in which the canine characters that play such an important role come to life, from their expressive eyes to their mangy coats. This film is a little less whimsical than Anderson’s movies usually are, likely because so much of it takes place on the bleak and dirty Trash Island, but it is a rather refreshing backdrop for this story to take place against. And everything we’ve come to associate with Anderson’s style is still there, including the symmetrical shots, the characters speaking straight into the camera, and so on. The pace is fast, with a lot of action going on in the frame even when the camera remains still, and the dialogue is clever (probably too clever as it wears itself thin toward the end of the film, but that’s okay) and funny. Anderson brings a both a stable of favorites and newcomers on board to voice the characters, giving Chief and the four dogs in his group distinct personalities and making for some fun banter between them and immediately tells the viewer everything they need to know about their relationship.
Less care is taken with the human characters, however, and this is where cultural appropriation comes into play. There are a lot of elements of Japanese culture included in the film, from the taiko drums in the score to the tradition of fables and storytelling that opens the film, but these are rather superficial things. There are no subtitles in the film, so the Japanese characters speak their native language which is occasionally verbally translated or just left to the audience to determine the gist of their conversation. This is a nice touch, but it also results in many conversations being relegated to words that the film’s primarily English-speaking audiences will understand. Atari, for example, almost only speaks in one or two word phrases that the audience can understand. This doesn’t feel natural, and as a result, we don’t really get to know him as well in comparison to the canine characters, all of whom are voiced by white actors and speak English. Even the human who does finally take the lead against the mayor is an American student, while the Japanese characters, outside of Atari, are largely passive. What it all comes down to is that this film really could have taken place anywhere; the culture of Japan doesn’t have enough bearing on the story to serve as much more than an aesthetic. All of this doesn’t necessarily hinder the enjoyment of the film, but it is something to think about.
Ultimately, however, even with the conflict about the dogs and the mayor and Trash Island looming in the background, the story is really circles back to that opening question: “Whatever happened to man’s best friend?” The answer isn’t something that just the humans have to figure out, but also Chief, as Atari’s presence forces him to question why he has never been willing to have a master before. While some of the characters don’t get the development they deserve, exploring that question from a perspective the viewers will be less familiar with—that of the dog, rather than the human—is something this film does very well.
Runtime: 101 minutes. Rated PG-13.