Following his success with Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson returns to stop motion animation in Isle of Dogs. Like many of the auteur director’s other movies, this one is witty, charming, and a pleasure to watch. The movie’s distinct in its visuals as well as its story and acting, and the voice cast is full of recognizable voices, including Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, and many more. However, unless viewers are especially enamored by Anderson’s work, it’s easy to pass this one over.
Drawing in the viewer with voice over narration, stop action animation, and the distinctive art style, Anderson launches readers into a storybook tale that’s set in a dystopian Japan that’s only twenty years into the future. A flu-like virus called snout fever has spread throughout Japan’s dog population. Kobayashi, the mayor of Megasaki City, banishes all dogs to Trash Island, also known as the Isle of Dogs. The first dog to be sent away to that island is called Spots, whose master is the mayor’s distant nephew named Atari. Six months later, Atari ventures to the island to find his dog.
As the viewers follow the rest of the story, they’re bound to feel a sense of purpose in the visuals. Each shot is composed thoughtfully, a mark of Anderson’s distinct visual expression. For instance, there’s a junkyard shelter that’s made of a mountain of discarded bottles of sake, and Anderson manages to evoke the stained-glass windows of a church by silhouetting the dogs against the glowing, colored glass. It all makes for an eminently enjoyable viewing experience.
Amidst the visuals, the audience may notice that the movie is so full of Japanese iconography that it begs the question: is any of this authentic? Is there such a thing as a pagoda slide? In the current political climate, it’s hard for culturally and politically-savvy viewers to not wonder what they’re supposed to make of Wes Anderson’s portrayal of Japan. After all, he does lazily use that tired old “white savior” trope; and then there’s the hacker who looks like something of an embarrassingly old-fashioned, cartoonish caricature. Certainly, Anderson’s design choices do invite a critical eye of his portrayal of Japanese people and culture.
But maybe Anderson doesn’t want audiences to take it too seriously. As in most of his other movies, Isle of Dogs is imbued with a particular sense of whimsy. The stop motion animation affords a degree of freedom in its humor, which is cartoonish at times (and winsomely so). He also uses classic cartoon standbys like the rolling clouds that stand in for frenzied fighting, which he charmingly represents using fuzzy white clouds of cotton balls.
Whatever your stance is on the intersection of culture and media, the movie succeeds as an artistic motion picture. However, the story spreads itself just a touch thin when it veers off into commentary on corrupt governments and crony capitalism. If it instead chose to capitalize on the theme of the reunification of loved ones, it might’ve been a more moving narrative about a boy’s journey to find his lost dog. Ultimately, while Isle of Dogs is thoroughly enjoyable, it missed out on a great opportunity to tell a better story.