Wes Anderson is one of the great auteurs of our time. He creates his own rules. After seeing just one or two of his films, you can instantly recognize his style. His characters are intense but restrained. His actors deliver their lines with just enough emphasis to feel they mean what they are saying, but no more than is necessary. The animators do a first-rate job of capturing the same feeling one gets from his live actors. It is a blessing to have a talent like this working in the medium of animation. This is the best dog movie, of any kind, since Lady and the Tramp.
Wes Anderson’s storytelling is not constrained by any one genre. Isle of Dogs is a stylish art film, a family-friendly story of a boy and his dog, a powerful commentary on current politics, a light-hearted homage to Japanese culture filtered through his peculiar lens. The Japanese city of Megasaki, and the titular island, is a brutal world where canine pets are banished to a wasteland that has suffered multiple disasters. It features a species ravaged by an epidemic, conspiracies, starvation, cannibalism and dog catchers who have not only the proverbial giant nets but electric cattle prods as well. It features more characters with teary eyes than any other movie I can recall.
But it is also funny. To not have humor would make this movie a much harder pill to swallow. The jokes and gags are subtle and evenly spaced throughout the film. They aren’t too precious. Anderson rejects naturalism in his storytelling. The compositions predominately have actors facing directly into the camera. That creates a connection to the characters that you wouldn’t get with normal staging. Their reactions are often understated, even when things are going very badly. That invokes a Keatonesque stoicism in confronting the life and death struggles. In the sample below, there is a fight between two packs of dogs. After the symmetrical staging of the dogs, it goes from a mostly natural growling and posturing to a thoughtful attempt at reasoning one might not even find among humans. When that fails and the fight happens, the visual image of a noisy dust cloud with legs and tails is a cartoony delight. A dog losing an ear is no big deal. It’s dramatic, unpredictable and comic all in one scene.
MINOR SPOILERS BELOW.
In a world as grim as this, Anderson gives us a boy who risks his life for his dog, a feral dog who learn to love and fetch sticks, and children who stand up to power. In comedies, characters often get married. In Isle of Dogs, a mate is taken and puppies born. Love overcomes all. It is a story of great spirit in the face of an apparently hopeless existence.
Critics who dislike the film generally seem to be offended in terms of political correctness. For example, the young woman who leads the revolt against the Megasaki mayor is an American exchange student. It would have better served the story to have her also be Japanese. Still, I couldn’t refute the value of this movie based on things like that.
Finally, if you hadn’t noticed, the title, Isle of Dogs, sounds exactly like saying “I love dogs”
Go see it in the theater as soon as you can.