If you’re a Wes Anderson fan (I am), and a dog lover (does this even need a parenthetical?), then Isle of Dogs is sheer joy. Further, if you’re a Japanophile, or Kurasawa lover, you might just go into a happiness seizure. If this is your case, I advise you to see it with a loved one and bring meds.
Isle of Dogs is a stop motion animated fable set in the near future in a fictional city in Japan called Megasaki where dogs have been exiled by an evil, cat-loving mayor named Kobayashi. They are ostensibly being quarantined to Trash Island, a wretched and depraved place, due to a suspicious flu all the dogs supposedly have.
The story centers around a dog named Spots, voiced by Liev Schreiber, as he adjusts to his life at Trash Island and finds himself in a pack of dogs who scrap constantly and seem out of his league: Rex, Boss, Duke, and Chief, among others. One day Spots’ owner, a 12 year-old boy named Atari, flies a mini-plane to the island to rescue him.
This movie has all the idiosyncratic elements of fantasy that Anderson movies like Life Aquatic, The Grand Budapest Hotel, etc., are known for, yet this has a 1984-esque anti-fascist, dark political allegory that the purely silly Anderson movies lack (unless Steve Zissou is supposed to represent Stalin, which doesn’t seem to be the case). In Isle of Dogs, Kobayashi, who poisons his political adversaries, seems to represent Putin, and the dogs represent the exploited proletariat who, amidst systemic injustice, foster deeper, more intimate connections with their community out of sheer necessity.
There is also the signature mise-en-scène of Anderson—balanced, vibrant colors and intricately detailed scenes where you know everything was handpicked by Anderson to deliver a stunning image every time.
And Anderson maintains his usual team: Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, and, of course, Bill Murray, but has new talent: Bryan Cranston (Chief), Greta Gerwig, who plays an American exchange student who goes to Trash Island as a journalist to cover the controversy; Courtney B. Vance, Liev Schreiber, Ken Watanabe, and others. Anderson is undoubtedly the most stylized filmmaker of the last 20 years, but perhaps more impressive is his ability to attract the most gifted actors in the world. All of these qualities make for a stunning film-going experience.
With all this talk about Anderson, let’s not forget that this movie is a celebration of the special and magical spirit of dogs. Rex and Chief, the leaders of Trash Island, have so much compassion and loyalty, even though they were so betrayed in their exile. The dogs never lose their enthusiasm for life, the priceless ability to derive joy in the smallest of things. Isle of Dogs is a reminder that there’s always still so much goodness and decency amidst callous unfairness.