Isle of Dogs is set twenty years in the future, with the action set between the titular island and the fictional Megasaki city. It is a metropolis that has exiled all dogs because of a disease that is spreading in the species, and the efforts of a mayor belonging to a family that has always hated dogs. The action begins with the arrival of twelve-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin) on the island, in search of his beloved pet Spots. He gets the help of a group of five dogs on the island, led by the reluctant Chief (Bryan Cranston). They travel across the island’s treacherous landscape, trying to evade capture by the authorities.
The film is pretty much as quirky and delightful as one might expect, though one might have to raise an eyebrow in the specific ways that Japanese culture has been fetishized. There is no doubt at all that the film is meant to be a tribute, but there are just moments where the end result don’t feel like they quite match up with those intentions. But overall, it is hard to deny the visible appeal of this film. It is one of the most beautifully designed films in recent memory, and those visuals are enhanced by a deceptively simple sentiment that ties quiet loyalty with a struggle against darker forces.
The stop-motion animation in this film is just gorgeous. It is a medium that seems to suit director Wes Anderson particularly, who even in his live-action films seems to design little dioramas of narrative incident. There is plenty of whimsy in the film’s design, but Anderson goes darker here than in his previous effort, The Fantastic Mr. Fox. He builds a dystopian landscape our of tangible material: clear plastic representing water, cotton standing in for smoke. The palette is kept surprisingly minimal, the film instead using high contrast to make its images pop.
It’s a fully realized world, though one must again point out that it’s all based on this almost facile appreciation of Japanese culture, taking advantage of its most outward trappings for their visual appeal. The movie’s high level of unreality softens the blow of the appropriation, but there are still moments that might leave one a little uncomfortable. The movie is still pretty enjoyable, but it is at its peak when it just drills down on the raw sentiment behind its narrative. It often lets its characters be nakedly emotional, tears streaming down their animated faces. The film often manages to be moving, in spite of the arch weirdness that constantly surrounds the characters.
Enough cannot be said of how well this movie is animated. Just the way the fur of the dogs moves in the wind feels like an astounding achievement. It’s a madcap world being presented in the movie, but the method of animation is just so palpable that it helps ground everything. The voice cast is made up of pretty big names: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and many more. But there really isn’t much to say about these performance. Only Cranston gets to do much more than deliver a few silly jokes.
Isle of Dogs is a fun film. Interestingly, the film also has Wes Anderson dabbling in a bit of politics, this being the second film in a row where his usual quirky cast is up against an authoritarian regime. It is tough to say, though, that this film manages to get across anything particularly insightful or pertinent. It’s still probably best enjoyed as a strange, at times indulgent little romp that fully expresses the director’s aesthetic sensibilities. It gets a little harder to swallow once you get deeper.
Isle of Dogs is now showing at Glorietta 4, Trinoma, Market Market, Ayala Malls Cloverleaf, and Ayala Fairview Terraces.