There isn’t much middle ground when it comes to Wes Anderson movies. As is often the case, his films either work for you or they don’t. They definitely work for me. My wife, not as much. But it’s not because she doesn’t try. I’m pretty sure I’ve shown her every Anderson flick and we usually have some pretty good discussions after each viewing. Deep down I like to think she actually has an untapped appreciation.
But we’ll leave that for another time. Wes Anderson movies are special because without fail they always feel refreshingly different from anything else in theaters. His latest film is no different. From the very first frame of “Isle of Dogs” we know we are watching an Anderson picture. The stop-motion animation (ala 2009’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox”), the slightly offbeat music, and the almost instant deadpan humor are unquestionably Andersonian. It instantly fits right into his spectacular comic movie catalog. So why am I hesitant to fully embrace this film in the same way I have his others?
Now don’t get me wrong, “Isle of Dogs” is another fascinating Anderson experience that (like most of his films) begs for multiple viewings to fully appreciate the richness of the visual and thematic language. Once again we find the filmmaker creating and inhabiting another wacky quasi-real place within his own wacky quasi-universe. Japanese culture lends its influence to Anderson’s fictional city of Megasaki City but that’s as far as the similarities go. Anderson doesn’t work within the real world. He only borrows from it and speaks to elements of it.
In “Isle of Dogs” the conniving cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) runs a dystopian not-to-distant-future Japan with an iron fist. Exploiting a dog flu virus outbreak, the authoritarian mayor banishes the entire dog population to Trash Island. Among the dogs is Spots (Live Schreiber), the best buddy to the mayor’s nephew and ward Atari (Koyu Rankin). But Atari will have none of it. He sneaks away and flies a rickety mini-plane to Trash Island to find his canine companion.
After crash landing Atari is taken in by an eccentric pack of pups led by the reluctant Chief (Bryan Cranston). The rest of the group is voiced by a fun assortment of actors including Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Jeff Goldblum as the scene-stealing gossip of the group. They venture across Trash Island to find Spots while back home a youth protest against the Mayor’s doggie decrees is led by a foreign exchange student named Tracy (Greta Gerwig), one of many outcasts found throughout the story.
As the movie moves forward you can’t help but be smitten by the superb animation and art direction. The vivid detail in both the backgrounds and the characters (both human and hairy) are quite stunning. And so often it’s the gorgeous yet quirky visuals that spur some of the film’s bigger laughs. But normally it’s Anderson’s dry, offbeat, deadpan humor, cleverly balanced throughout his movies, that carry them. Here it isn’t nearly as pronounced. In fact, in the final act it’s fairly sparse. And as the pieces all-too-neatly fall into place, I found myself not knowing how to feel about the ending.
In some ways how Anderson tells his story is more fascinating that the story itself. “Isle of Dogs” is a technical delight both visually and in its use of sound. The huge and talented cast offer up superb voice work and they all meld seamlessly into Anderson’s handsomely idiosyncratic world. It’s another reminder that Wes Anderson is a meticulous master of his craft. Yet from a story standpoint I can’t help but feel ever so slightly conflicted. And whether looking at it as a message piece soaked in political metaphors or simply as a story about a boy and his dog, I still left with the same uncertainties. Maybe I just need to give it another view. Or maybe I’m just too much of a cat person.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS