Since his debut in 1996, Wes Anderson has arguably proven himself as today’s most creatively distinctive filmmaker. From his symmetrical shots to his dollhouse-esque set design, audiences know a Wes Anderson film when they see one. Although he mainly works in live-action, Anderson released his stellar stop-motion animated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book “Fantastic Mr. Fox” in 2009. Now, Anderson returns to animation with “Isle of Dogs,” another wonderful showcase of his seemingly limitless imagination.
Twenty years in the future in the fictional Megasaki City in Japan, we follow a pack of five dogs. Along with the rest of the town’s canines, this group has been exiled to a vast garbage dump called Trash Island by the city’s mayor. There they meet 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin), who has gone to the island alone in search of his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). From there, Atari and the pack begin an epic journey that will decide the fate of Megasaki City’s canines.
On a technical level, the movie is absolutely superb. The animation is stunning; every frame has obviously been painstakingly toiled over to perfection. Anderson and his team know how to utilize the tactile quality of stop-motion to their advantage, crafting characters and a world that feel alive in a way that cannot possibly be replicated in hand-drawn or 3-D animation. Every miniature is intricately detailed, and Anderson’s dynamic camerawork shows them off.
Once again, Anderson has procured an all-star group of performers for even the smallest roles. Anderson regulars like Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Tilda Swinton are some of the ensemble’s standouts, but Bryan Cranston is the real star as Chief, providing emotion and pathos to the proceedings. The single stray member of the pack, Chief forms an unlikely bond with Atari. The film’s best moments are the interactions between these two.
Interestingly, the Japanese-speaking characters (including Atari) speak in their native language without English subtitles. At times, this feels like a purposely idiosyncratic, unnecessarily distracting creative decision. However, it mostly puts watchers in the shoes of the canine characters, who can’t understand Japanese, and makes their brief instants of understanding all the more affecting.
While the movie’s adventurous plot is often thrilling, it does falter at points. In order to properly build its universe, the script has dedicated scenes to establish backstory. Though well thought-out and admittedly indispensable in a narrative this intricate, these segments significantly slow down the pace. Additionally, a dog-less subplot concerning the exploits of radical American foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) seems frivolous at times and has too little impact on the overall story given its amount of screen time.
However, even these lesser bits have their positives. Nearly every scene in the film has some comedy, even the more morose ones. Visual and verbal gags give the movie quirky, dark sense of humor that might limit its appeal to young children, but will certainly entertain its older viewers.