Wes Anderson’s movies are not known for being cute. Beautiful, extraordinarily wacky, gorgeously cinematic and a bit artsy, yes. But cute and cuddly? Not so much. So, logically, Isle of Dogs is neither of those things, despite its furry stars.
Set twenty years in the future, in a fictional dystopian Japanese megacity, it takes everything that you might expect of an animated doggy caper, and turns it resoundingly upside down and back to front. And the animation is an homage to traditional Japanese art styles (no anime in sight).
In other words, it’s everything you might expect from a Wes Anderson movie – including the presence of Bill Murray in the cast list because it’s just not a Wes Anderson movie without him these days. In some ways, it’s Anderson’s weirdest masterpiece yet. And yet it might also be his most logical and coherent.
This Isle of Dogs is a grown up stop motion animation, not a cartoon. It’s a bleaker story than Anderson’s usual fare, alluding to real life issues of environmental degradation and societal corruption. In short, it’s about a community of diseased dogs – both domesticated house pets and strays – who are banished to a trash island by an evil mayor, after an outbreak of some kind of canine flu.
The mayor’s ward, a 12-year-old boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin), goes in search of his dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), and teams up with group of hardbitten, flea ridden, outlaw dogs along the way. Voiced by the likes of Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton and the aforementioned Bill Murray, they aren’t the cuddly canines we’re used to in tamer talking dog movies.
This movie has been dogged (hah) by accusations of cultural appropriation and a lack of female representation. It allegedly completely fails the Bechdel Test (at least two female characters talking to each other about something other than a man) – but that’s not actually true.
A scene close to the end of the movie has two female characters (one of whom is inexplicably voiced by Yoko Ono) talking about the conspiracy that lies at the heart of the tale. Initially adored by critics, the film has seen a very positive response from fans.
The comic timing is impeccable and the humor less weird than Anderson’s usual fare (the plot is the surreal part). It’s witty and absorbing with a predictably wonderful score. If I have any complaints, it’s that even coming in at a mere 101 minutes, it’s perhaps a little long.
I wasn’t getting bored, per se, but around three quarters of the way through I found myself wondering if it was going to speed up any time soon – and then it suddenly did, with an admittedly very satisfying denouement that wrapped things up perhaps a little too quickly in the end.
An improvement on Anderson’s last adventure into stop-motion animation, 2009’s Fantastic Mr Fox, the all star cast delights, the plot is inventive and gripping, and the whole thing comes together beautifully. Isle of Dogs is certainly captivating with a coherent style and believable characters who just happened to mostly be dog.