Set in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki in the not too distant future, all dogs have been banished by Mayor Kobayashi to a small island (nicknamed ‘Trash Island’) following an outbreak of snout fever and dog flu that has become a threat to human health and safety. A 12-year-old boy, Atari, travels to the island in a bid to track down his beloved pet, Spots, and is aided by some fellow canines.
The story is a simple one, but in true Wes Anderson style, it is filled with many side pieces, flashbacks and anecdotes which make it a far more interesting and complex plot to follow.
Although technically suitable for a younger audience thanks to its rating, canine characters and stop motion style , its appeal for children is fairly questionable given the advanced dialogue, unique look and rarely subtitled Japanese speech that requires a fair bit of interpretation from the audience.
Isle of Dogs is unmistakably a Wes Anderson piece, with signature elements like perfect symmetry, close ups, and the breaking of the fourth wall popping up amongst many others.
One of the best things about Isle of Dogs is the outstanding visual artistry at work. The stop-motion animation is completely unique, and the detail is impeccable. The backdrops have a more cartoonish look but it works so well with the hyper-detailed close-ups of the characters, and gives an incredible unique depth to the overall look of the scene. It’s hard to tell what’s a real, practical stop motion model, what could be drawn or painted, and what (if any) is CGI, but it all comes together to create a distinctly brilliant aesthetic.
Anderson is renowned for roping in a star-studded cast, and Isle of Dogs has one of the biggest line-ups yet. Firstly, there’s the regulars, including Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Tilda Swinton, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum and Harvey Keitel – but there are new additions too, such as Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Greta Gerwig and, in honour of the film being set in Japan, Yoko Ono. The fact that some of these huge names only have a handful of lines proves Anderson’s innate ability in creating a unique and exciting cinematic experience, and the respect he has garnered from his film industry counterparts to attract this kind of talent, even if only for a cameo appearance.
Beautiful as it may be, Isle of Dogs hasn’t escaped scrutiny. There’s been a lot of media attention following the release of the film, especially around perceived white-washing and cultural appropriation – and it’s easy to see why.
The representation of Japan is fairly derivative in that it doesn’t really offer any kind of new vision of this incredible culture, just the same stereotypical (and Western) view we’ve seen appropriated so many times before. Whilst it doesn’t seem to be Anderson’s intention to undermine Japanese culture – the film acts more like a love letter to it – there’s no real need story-wise for it to be set there, and it therefore comes across almost artificial in that it’s only there for stylistic reasons. Plus, some repeated and questionable Hiroshima imagery also feels a little insensitive.
The biggest issue, though, is Greta Gerwig’s character, Tracy Walker. Greta does a fine job of voicing her, but she’s the only white/Western person in the movie, and ends up acting as a ‘white saviour’ to expose corruption in the city and fight for the dog’s rights.
It may have been that Anderson needed an English-speaking character to drive the narrative along and provide translation for those talking in Japanese – but this could easily have been managed without feeding into this stereotype, and Anderson should have known better. This kind of insensitivity (along with the underwhelming third act) takes what would have been a near-perfect film down a notch or two.
What’s interesting about Isle of Dogs is how it stands separate to the rest of Anderson’s work. The director usually focuses his storylines on personal dramas within individuals or small communities, basing the narratives around quirks and anecdotes in everyday lives and avoids being too thematically heavy.
Isle of Dogs is certainly his most political film yet – aside from the obvious political element to the storyline (the Mayor being the one that banishes the dogs), it provides a great antithesis in the Trumpian age the world is currently faced with. It is very much about inclusion and against scapegoating and segregation, and conveys a powerful message against the fear that is pumped into political campaigns these days. It certainly makes for very compelling viewing for an animated film.
Visually impressive, intelligently witty and concise, Isle of Dogs is a cinematic feast for any Anderson fan, whether veteran or novice. It gets four stars from us.
Isle of Dogs is still in cinemas at the time of publishing.