Movie review: 'Isle of Dogs'
Director Wes Anderson has a lot of cinematic trademarks that make his movies, well, Wes Anderson movies. There's the whole love of more or less symmetrical shots, for instance. A frame from a Wes Anderson movie is often recognizable as such for this reason alone. He's the writer of all his own movies (with occasional co-writers, of course). In tone, his writing features normal to the point of banal dialogue in unusual circumstances. This is reflected in his movie's art direction; for instance, in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, he filmed parts of the movie on an actual boat at sea, and other parts on a flagrantly obvious sound stage. The thing about doing this is that creating a huge stage and filming at sea are both difficult things to do that also don't really complement each other. He creates comedies, but they are often very dark; at one point in The Grand Budapest Hotel, for instance, an innocent woman's severed head is held up, and the primary emotion felt is relief. Under normal circumstances, the standard critique would be his films are tonally inconsistent, but, as even the sets are at war with themselves, this is obviously on purpose.
Also, he is known for violently killing off dogs in his movies. That's a thing he does.
Which brings us to Isle of Dogs. There is literally a plot to kill off every dog in the movie. Turns out, Wes Anderson might actually like dogs, however, because that's the villains plot, not the movie's.
Another thing Anderson does in his movies that isn't quite as often noted upon, but is pretty much always there, is child endangerment. It's a running theme throughout his movies, and just like the increasingly violent doggie deaths, a source of uncomfortable humor. The human lead of this movie is a small boy, Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin), who crash-lands a small plane onto the titular isle of dogs, and spends the rest of the movie with a mechanical bit of said plane sticking out the side of his head. He's already survived a train crash that killed his parents and destroyed one of his kidneys before the movie started, and he'll be thought dead multiple times before the end of the movie.
Atari, being an orphan (hey, orphans, another running gag in the Anderson oeuvre!), has become the ward of his distant uncle and Mayor of the fictional future Japanese city of Megasaki, Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura, who also co-wrote the movie). Kobayashi is the descendant of a long line of cat-loving dog-haters who once almost wiped out the entire population of dogs in Japan, and he's now the leader of a secret cabal of cat-owning conspirators who have managed to get all dogs in the city moved to Trash Island due to fears of something called "dog flu" (note: the cats are not the bad guys; they are basically un-anthropomorphic and therefore innocent). The first dog sent to the island was Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber), Atari's bodyguard dog, and Atari has come to the island to rescue him.
A pack of dogs featuring four former pets (voiced by Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum) and one former stray, Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), watches Atari's crash, and decide to help the boy, though Chief is the lone dissenting voice when it comes to a vote. The pack, with Atari, go on a sort of quest for the lost Spots, and eventually Chief and Atari are separated from the other four, who may or may not be violently killed offscreen (hey, it's a Wes Anderson movie). Chief, though he still doesn't trust this boy, remains loyal to his pack's decision, and continues alone with Atari.
So, it's basically a-boy-and-his-dog story, except (at least for American audiences, anyway), it's the dog that talks in English and the boy that is untranslated. The Japanese characters speak Japanese, without subtitles, though they are occasionally translated via other methods. Those methods being unavailable to Atari and the dogs of Trash Island, Atari's dialogue isn't.
The movie is stop-motion animation, yet another frequent Anderson trademark. However, it feels very different from his earlier stop-motion movie, Fantastic Mr. Fox. I mean other than it's still very much a Wes Anderson movie, and we've gone over that. Fantastic Mr. Fox is, ultimately, a much more traditional animated movie, story-wise. It is, after all, based on a children's novel; it's still Anderson's only adaptation. Isle of Dogs is much darker, much more violent and just all-around a much spikier proposition than Fantastic Mr. Fox. Seeing as how Fantastic Mr. Fox had trouble getting furries to actually like it back in 2009 despite being a movie about a cartoon freaking fox, it would seem that Isle of Dogs would have an uphill battle.
But, luckily, Fantastic Mr. Fox has gone on to be an important cult favorite, both with furries and the animation community at large since 2009. Hopefully, furries are a bit more ready for Wes Anderson's trademarks this time around.