Review: Isle of Dogs
Wes Anderson’s latest opens on a vibrant neon cityscape, a stark visual contrast to its primary setting: the irradiated and diseased archipelago of Trash Island. When a bizarre illness strikes a prefecture in Japan, the cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi deports all the city’s dogs to Trash Island after stoking public fears about their supposedly communicative disease. It’s a not so subtle nod to Trump-era fear-mongering and racist anti-immigration rhetoric. In the midst of this havoc, Kobayashi’s distant nephew, steals a military plane and embarks on a journey to Trash Island to rescue his canine companion: Spots.
Though Anderson’s filmography often favors a focus on perfectionist Ozu-esque compositions over the central emotions swirling around in the conflict, something he often emphasizes through reigned in performances and tight, witty dialogue, here, much like Moonrise Kingdom and Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson lets the central emotions drive the arc of the film. Simply put, this film is – at its heart – a love story between a boy and his dog. It’s an odyssey across land, sea, and air to find and rescue a companion who has shown him nothing but unconditional love. And Anderson’s keen focus on this beautiful central thrust provides more than enough fuel to drive the narrative forward.
But, here too, as in virtually all his films, Anderson demonstrates his keen ear for witty dialogue. It’s razor sharp, consistently funny – and occasionally genuinely hilarious, and – most important of all – it constantly builds out and enriches a portrait of love, companionship, and acceptance. Wes Anderson does fall into some predictable rhythms near the peak of the second act, using jokes that feel predetermined from the first frame, but on the whole, his comedy lands; and better yet, with pathos to back up the laughs.
Visually, Isle of Dogs is utterly stunning. The symmetrical, meticulously crafted compositions are delightful to look at in and of themselves, but Anderson demonstrates a willingness to push the craft he showed in Fantastic Mr. Fox, using depth and a wider pallet of colors to spectacular effect. There’s a wonderfully textural feel to every frame in the picture, smoke seems crafted out of wool and the shimmery fur of the central cast of dogs animates beautifully, ruffling and waving with their movement and the wind. Anderson also does a phenomenal job of distinguishing a cast of animals that, without variations in fur patterns and colors, could have melded together, phenomenally.
Finally, across the board, the utterly star-studded cast – everyone from Bryan Cranston to Greta Gerwig to Scarlett Johansson to Harvey Keitel (in a wonderfully hilarious bending of his typical on-screen persona) to Jeff Goldblum to Anderson regulars like Ed Norton and Bill Murray – give phenomenal performances. Special props, though, must be given to Anderson’s Japanese portion of the cast – especially the young star: Koyu Rankin – who give entirely legible performances without the aid of subtitles or actual physical acting. It’s incredibly impressive work. Though I continue to have mixed feelings about Anderson’s signature style of performances – reigned in emotion to let the dialogue, not necessarily the physical performances, do the talking – the emotive animation provides ample room for the physical, visual aspect of these actors’ performances to shine through.
When Anderson finds a strong, central, driving emotion to power his work – fatherhood and purposeful work in the case of Fantastic Mr. Fox and the giddiness of young love in the case of Moonrise Kingdom – his work shines. In Isle of Dogs, Anderson finds that central emotion and sticks with it. He uses it not just as scaffolding onto which to build the narrative of the film, but he uses it as the focal point for every moment and every action our hero takes. And it’s that keen attention to empathetic storytelling that makes Isle of Dogs such a resounding success.