One of the easiest ways to define your voice as a filmmaker is to honestly lean into your passions, and with Wes Anderson, he does that to the degree that he’s elevated it to pure fetish by this point.
I’m okay with that, though, especially when the results are as flat-out delightful as ISLE OF DOGS, a dark and witty film that is beautifully animated and practically drunk on Japanese cinema of the 1950s. That is such a strangely particular thing to pay tribute to that the film really only works if it transcends those things… and it does. The real hook here is hidden in plain view in the film’s “pun-as-title.” For anyone who has any fondness whatsoever for dogs, this film is just brimming over with love and a sly sense of play that makes it one of the most instantly enjoyable of Anderson’s films.
The movie begins with a fable about a boy samurai and the dogs he rescued, and part of what I love about the film’s sense of humor is how straight-faced it all is. By cranking up the sincerity as high as they do, it makes everything feel just this side of ridiculous. Even when the film isn’t packed with jokes, I found myself quietly laughing at the attitude and timing and the overall preposterousness of it.
As the film jumps to modern Nagasaki, a family that has hated dogs for generations has finally consolidated power and Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) unveils his master plan. He announces that dogs have contracted dog flu, and that leads to snout fever, and snout fever is just plain terrible, and so all the dogs need to be segregated on Trash Island. He uses the media to cannily whip up some anti-dog hysteria, and he does it while pretending to participate in the political process in good faith, his foot on the scale the entire time. He has a young ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin), and when all of the dogs are indeed sent to Trash Island, that includes Spots (Liev Schreiber), Atari’s bodyguard.
Atari isn’t having it, though, and he commandeers a small plane and flies to Trash Island so he can find and rescue Spots. By the time he does that, enough time has passed that a sort of order has started to assert itself, with Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), King (Bob Balaban) and Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) all staking out their spots in the pecking order. I love the various relationships that are established between the dogs, and there is some terrific voice work here. The film is shaped like an epic adventure quest movie, and it gets stranger and more ridiculous the higher the stakes get. Parents should be warned: there is some jet-black humor here, and dogs do die. There are robot dogs and armed drones and political assassinations and it is all played like it’s perfectly reasonable and normal.
Back in Nagasaki, foreign exchange firebrand Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig, who seems to only have grown even more charmingly Gerwigian as an animated character) is determined to get to the bottom of what she sees as a massive anti-dog conspiracy, even as she falls in love with this idealized version of Atari as she pursues his story. She’s cut from the same cloth as earlier Anderson protagonists like Rushmore’s Max or Moonrise Kingdom’s Sam, and that dogged determinism is extra-funny, because her conspiracy theory, as outrageous as it is, turns out to be 100% accurate.
Cranston’s the real star here. Chief starts the film as a stray. One of the reasons he’s so well-adapted for survival on Trash Island is because of his life on the street, and he resists any sort of connection to Atari at first. If you’ve ever seen a movie in your life, you can guess that Chief is going to grow fond of the boy, but considering how often Anderson gets knocked for being focused on the surface of his films, I feel like that’s all a disguise for the sort of rolling ocean of emotion that his characters seem to be just barely containing within themselves. Chief is ready to have a boy of his own, and Atari’s connection to Spots isn’t really what he thinks it is. These two are on a collision course, and it’s really beautiful to watch them play it out.
Last year, my girlfriend and I rescued a puppy. She’s a mix, and it’s easiest just for us to describe her as a “slightly smaller version of Scooby-Doo.” I’ve never owned a dog that was really mine, and my kids have never had a pet at all. We made this choice as a family, and the impact the dog has had on them has been remarkable. The boys do not live with me full-time, so when they are gone, she frequently looks for them and seems puzzled by their absence. When they are here, her joy at seeing them and the incredible impact that she has on them emotionally has been amazing to watch. Anytime I’m frustrated or stymied by some part of dealing with the puppy (and any owner of an enthusiastic puppy with a steel trap jaw will tell you that the frustrations are many), thinking of my nine-year-old howling with laughter while she attacks him from all sides or picturing my twelve-year-old on the couch, the dog stretched across him all blissed out as he scratches her back is enough to convince me that it should be mandatory that people with kids rescue dogs. Isle Of Dogs celebrates the very simple and real emotional magic of that relationship by cranking everything up to storybook levels.
I’ve barely mentioned the animation, but that’s because the film is technically impeccable. It feels almost casually perfect, and the character work is so good that it feels like that perfect hybrid that you aim for in animation, where voice actor and animator both blend invisibly into one another. The dogs are dogs… they haven’t been anthropomorphized to the point where we lose that, and there are so many tiny observational bits of behavior that made me laugh that I’d wager most of the crew has pets of their own. We often talk about how films are a labor of love, and I think that speaks to craft in general. You don’t get into stop-motion animation because you are indifferent to cinema. That is an act on par with the monks who made illuminated texts. It’s a devotion to film. It’s a meticulous bit of worship that somehow produces miracles, one frame at a time. But one of the hard truths about animators that I’ve learned is that many of them end up having to work on films that are less than a full expression of what they want to do. Since animation is primarily aimed at the family audience, animators sometimes feel handcuffed, like they can’t express the full range of things that other filmmakers can. When you give an entire crew something that they connect with 100%, that “love” becomes something more, something a little more intense, and it feels to me like this film has that extra level of care in the way even background dogs are brought to life.
When I saw Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid in 1982, I was 12, and part of what fascinated me about it was the way it felt like a syllabus, like it laid out a roadmap of films for me to go find and absorb. There’s some of that here, too, and I would hope people who fall in love with the movie who aren’t already familiar with the sources Anderson is drawing from might go and seek out those things now.
There are so many wonderful moments along the way here, and entire characters I still haven’t mentioned — I am especially fond of The Oracle Dog played by Tilda Swinton — but that’s part of why I give this such a firm endorsement. It is a film that is dense with pleasures, and like many of my favorite films, I am eager to see this again because I know that I only got about half of it the first time.
Isle of Dogs is almost overstuffed, but that’s fine. I’ll take it. I’ll take a film that is as high on its own supply as this any day, especially when it’s also shot through with such richly-felt emotion.
Running time: 101 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic