Wes Anderson’s latest animated feature follows a pack of dogs we didn’t realize we needed in our lives until now.
At first glance, an animated film with a cast of dogs as its leads may not seem like the most important or relevant story of the day. But those dogs have a lot to say, and their story, much to convey, and Isle of Dogs shies away from none of it.
The film centers around 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin) and his journey to retrieve his dog and body-guard Spots (Liev Schreiber), but the leaders of the story are the pack of dogs who help him to find Spots, namely one dog, Chief (Bryan Cranston). Atari’s uncle and mayor of Megasaki City has banned the dogs in the city, sending them to Trash Island, after a canine epidemic breaks out. But there’s more than that going on. He’s not telling the whole story, and clearly, he despises dogs. A group of students led by one very determined American exchange student (Greta Gerwig), senses this and they work together to protest and uncover his secrets, with the film intercutting between the two ongoing but connected plot lines.
Anderson’s dedication to authenticity in this film is necessary and was nice to see. Rather than having Japanese characters living in Japan speak English, they speak Japanese, and Anderson found ways to incorporate translations without outright subtitles. Kunichi Nomura, a Japanese actor, and writer, also worked with Anderson to develop the story and has a writing credit for the film.
The animation is of course, gorgeous and well-done. Stop-motion was clearly the perfect medium for this story. While we’ve long learned that animated films can be made for any age, stop-motion always seems to have a more mature-feel to it, and Isle of Dogs is no different. This film, in particular, is definitely more adult-leaning, even if there are plenty of things for kids to enjoy as well. Some of the jokes and sensibilities may fly over their heads, and some of the scenes a little quiet or slow, but at the end of the day, the story is about a 12-year old and his dog. So, it has the power to be relatable to anyone and everyone but ultimately works to show how an animated story about canines doesn’t always have to fall into the category of something like Paw Patrol. That said, as strong of a story as it is, it’s also very cute, and the “ooh’s and ahh’s” are inevitable.
Part of the great fun of this story is seeing the dogs as they are, and their reactions to some of the more baser things humans have required of them over the years. Often it’s stuff they enjoy, but dogs like Chief, the proud stray, are sometimes conflicted by. This is something that’s been seen quite a few times before, but Anderson makes it feel fresh and unique in a way that only he can. The humor is spot on (no pun intended) and a lot of the subtler comedy, sometimes brought on by Anderson’s use of frontality as a character reaction, will have you smiling in your seat when least expected.
In these troubled and politically-charged times, the film conveys a few very prominent messages regarding xenophobia and what happens when corrupt governments work to silence or extinguish a population. Though difficult to miss, telling this story with dogs may assist some with overlooking these more serious themes, but in a way, dogs were an effective choice at portraying such a message in a more neutral but clear manner. Oftentimes, it’s the ones with the least power who get pushed around and left behind, and the film works to show how essential it is to see each other as individuals and to ensure that everyone has a voice in their lives. And if this is not the case, what hurts one group can soon after hurt many more.
Isle of Dogs is no mere cartoon, but we never expected it to be. It’s a fun, clever, and beautifully animated story with deeply important themes that have material rich enough to go beyond one viewing, but universal enough to make an impact after a first watch.