Isle of Dogs is set on an island off the coast of a futuristic Japanese city called Megasaki. A mysterious disease called dog flu is spreading through the city so in a bid to stop the disease spreading further the mayor quarantines all the city’s canines to the titular island. One such dog, Spots, belongs to the mayor’s ward Atari, and he, as well as a gang of exiled dogs, explore the island looking for his pet.
It is almost as if Wes Anderson and stop-motion were made to be together. The filmmaker is notoriously obsessed with detail, from the symmetrical frame compositions to the exact camera and character movements. Here, with stop-motion, he has excessive control over the environment he is telling the story with. He experimented with the form before, with sections of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, though he seemed to create a style of animating entirely his own for Fantastic Mr Fox. Here, in Isle of Dogs, that style comes into its own creating a world so vibrant and colourful that you could freeze the film anywhere and have a picture to pour over. While The Grand Budapest Hotel only looked like a dolls house, Isle of Dogs is a dolls house come to life.
I am not sure I need to talk about how Wes Anderson shoots his films in great detail; it is a style that is recognisable to anyone, even if you have not seen any of his films before. However, what is specifically noteworthy is how perfectly flat the frame is. It is not lit flatly, it does not contain dull colours, but the film feels like a moving picture book, with each shot one page of that story, idiosyncratically animated and illustrated. This perhaps perfectly suits the setting as at times the frame resembles Japanese prints. The music similarly, composed by Alexandre Desplat, combines Anderson’s signature musical quirks with the more traditional Japanese sounding instruments and arrangements. The frame drips with that signature that fans of Anderson have come to expect. It is a beautifully crafted watch of a film, right down to the physical humour and sight gags.
The film is not all visuals though; there is a cast of colourful and memorable characters voiced by a star-studded cast. We have Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F.Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Liev Schreiber, Yoko Ono and Brian Cranston all providing great voices for incredibly quirky Wes Anderson characters. The Japanese cast similarly does an excellent job communicating emotion and sentiment despite the language barrier. All these characters, however, do not distract from the central story which trips along at a terrific pace and can at times tug at the heartstrings. A warning though, like Anderson’s previous animated film, this one is not for children, at all; it may be cute and miniature, but there are still murder, organ transplants, vicious fighting, espionage and other more mature themes.
However, it is now impossible to talk about this film without talking about the controversy surrounding it. I was not offended by the whitewashing of the dog cast; it was I think important to focus on the dog side of the story rather than the human side. While many will see this as othering the Japanese, it might be an unfortunate by-product of a necessary storytelling device. What I did have an issue with was the treatment of the Japanese language in the film. There are some unfortunate jokes at the expense of the language, like with haiku and a reference made by Brian Cranston’s Chief that he cannot understand Atari, the young boy looking for his dog. However, nearly every time a Japanese person opens their mouth to speak, it is translated by an English voice, either by interpreter or electronic devise. There is also an American transfer student that renders the difference in voice obsolete; it also adds some white-saviour elements into the mix. As for culture, I will let the Japanese speak for themselves on that front and from what I have heard, they are fine. These issues were not the deal breaker for me that is was for some people, but they do mar what would have been a masterpiece of stop-motion.
Really your opinion of Isle of Dogs will boil down to your taste. If you don’t like Andersons highly unique flavour of storytelling and if you are overly sensitive to issues of cultural appropriation then stay away. For those that don’t mind either, there is tons still to recommend about Isle of Dogs.
You can watch Isle of Dogs in cinemas now