Visual symmetry, pastel colors, quirky characters and Bill Murray (“Rushmore,” “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”) — it must be a Wes Anderson movie.
“Isle of Dogs” is the latest film from the eccentric visionary and his second stop-motion animated film after 2009’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”
The film takes place in the fictional Megasaki City, Kobayashi, where an executive order has called for the exile of all dogs to Trash Island after a dangerous flu virus spreads through the canine population. The film follows a pack of dogs, Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and Boss (Bill Murray), as they search for Spots (Liev Schreiber) after his 12-year-old master Atari (Koyu Rankin) comes looking for him on the island.
“Isle of Dogs” is an Anderson movie in every sense. Filmgoers even remotely familiar with the director’s style will be able to recognize his fingerprints all over the movie. His characters’ awkward humor and the film’s unexpected, underplayed moments of poignancy will make any fan of the filmmaker feel right at home with his latest effort.
As with any Anderson movie, this film’s visual aesthetic and art direction drive the narrative. The style doesn’t work for everyone, but it has amassed a cult fandom since Anderson’s first work, “Bottle Rocket” (1996). The writer-director’s bone-dry comedy and fondness for obscure, underground 1960s pop music blend well in “Isle of Dogs” as they have before in films such as “Rushmore” (1998) and “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001).
Most of the film’s laughs come from the dogs accompanying Atari on his mission. In particular, Murray, Norton and Goldblum shine as funny, fast-talking canines alongside Cranston’s dour and brooding Chief, who might be the film’s true protagonist.
“Isle of Dogs” makes a bold choice in handling its setting and main character’s Japanese culture. Most of Atari’s lines are in Japanese without subtitles, which has led to some controversy. While some argue Anderson’s decision is respectful to the Japanese language by placing it alongside the dogs’ English without any filters, others argue it borders on cultural appropriation by allowing Atari’s inability to communicate with the dogs to cast him as the “other.”
In a purely narrative sense, Anderson’s decision creates other issues, whether they’re intentional or not — the main problem being confusion over the story’s lead character. While the plot suggests it’s Atari, the film plays out as if it’s Chief.
Early in the movie, Chief is wary of Atari, telling Atari not to get close because he bites. At first, the line is comedic, but as it’s repeated and the characters develop, audiences begin to realize Chief is speaking in a larger sense about his being. “I bite,” he keeps saying, as if it’s in his nature — it’s just who he is as a result of his upbringing. His following character arc will be the biggest takeaway from the film for many viewers, suggesting “Isle of Dogs” might be Chief’s story after all.
In a way, “Isle of Dogs” is one of Anderson’s most political movies to date. Filled with corrupt politicians, foreign affairs, student activists and a timely meditation on “nature vs. nurture” in modern society, the film doesn’t shy away from its potential cultural influence and says what’s on its mind — all through talking dogs.
While “Isle of Dogs” isn’t Anderson’s best work, it’s certainly not his worst. It’s a welcomed addition to his filmography which will be debated for several valid reasons. Despite its uneven pacing and lack of a clear protagonist, the film’s gorgeous animation and quirky approach to addressing today’s political climate can be appreciated in numerous depths.
“Isle of Dogs” is now playing in theaters nationwide.