OnScreen Review: "Isle of Dogs"

Ken Jones

  • Chief Film Critic

There is a 2012 piece in The New Yorker that came out after Moonrise Kingdom (my favorite Wes Anderson film), titled “Does Wes Anderson Hate Dogs?” Given the fate of Buckley in The Royal Tenenbaums and Snoopy in Moonrise Kingdom (still my favorite Wes Anderson film), I suppose it was a fair question to ask. Maybe Wes Anderson read that article, maybe he didn’t, but Isle of Dogs is an emphatic answer to that question, not in the least because the title literally sounds like “I love dogs” when spoken quickly. It’s also Anderson’s second stop-motion animated feature after his 2009 adaptation Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Every film Anderson makes is an ornate and elaborate structure, and this doggy tale is no exception. Also like every Anderson feature, it’s also earnest and playful and fully of whimsy. In a near-future fictional Japanese city called Megasaki City, dogs have been exiled to Trash Island. There are two reasons for this: an outbreak of dog flu and a long-standing enmity between the ruler of Megasaki City, cat-lover Mayor Kobayashi, and the dog population. Five dogs on the island, Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) attempt to help a teenage boy who crash lands on the island in the search for his dog, Spots.

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Obviously, attention to detail and production design are a significant aspect of the Wes Anderson aesthetic in all of his films. Plenty of people have dissected the visual style and symmetry of his films and appreciate them just on that level. Those people will not be disappointed as there is plenty to delight in here. It has been a while since I have seen Fantastic Mr. Fox, but the production design here feels exponentially more detailed than even that film. The detail of the dogs is impressive, but I found some of the larger sets depicting the city and even the island breathtaking, and wondered how they created displays so beautiful and so full of minor, intricate details.

The delight for me in Anderson’s films is not the ornate beauty of it all, which is impressive, but the unique characters and how they interact with each other and the quirky world that Anderson has created for them. Cranston’s Chief is the de facto leader of his pack, though the rest continually resist his leadership, with Norton’s Rex regularly insisting they put things up to a vote. Goldblum’s Duke begins everything he says with, “You heard the rumor, right?” Over the course of the movie the young boy attempts to bond with Chief and the development of their relationship is a focal point. Anderson also throws in a litter of great minor supporting roles, both human and canine, from a loud and outspoken American exchange student voiced by Greta Gerwig to a pug named Oracle that can see the future voiced by Tilda Swinton.

When we first meet this pack of dogs they get into a fight with another pack of dogs over a bag of garbage. The stop-motion animation is terrific as the scrum they get into turns them from individual dogs into a giant mass of dust, fur, limbs, and commotion, like a cartoon brought to life. These visual flourishes happen several times and are a treat every time. The greatest treat of the film, however, is a sequence in the middle of the film where a chef prepares sushi.

Anderson weaves a rich tapestry to great charm with this story. It’s steeped in Japanese cultural markings, from Hokusai paintings to art depicting samurai battles, all of which have been adjusted to incorporate dogs into the telling of the tale. There have been some vocal criticisms of the film in how it handles racial stereotypes and engages in cultural appropriation, but I find it hard to level such charges because I see the film as being made, like Fantastic Mr. Fox, as primarily for children but also to be enjoyed and more deeply appreciated by adults. Being a kids movie isn’t a get out of jail free card, but it does explain why there would be more 30,000 ft. view of including these things rather than a more nuanced take.

It’s hard not to see a bit of political commentary from Anderson here as well toward authoritarian figures like the mayor. The mayor scapegoats the dogs to get them deported to Trash Island and out of the city. He stokes the fears of the people of Megasaki City that dog flu will eventually threaten the human population, even though it has not yet, and he resists and rejects his scientists’ attempts at a cure. It’s telling that a simple haiku that ends asking “What happened to ‘Man’s Best Friend?’” brings an audience to a near revolt.

It’s an impressively curated little world that Anderson has created in Megasaki City and Trash Island. Isle of Dogs has immediately jumped to the head of the line for my favorite films of the year so far, a stop-motion delight that all ages of viewers can enjoy. Wes Anderson’s creativity and style blossom in this simple but resonate story of a boy and his dog.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars