Few films receive a perfect 10 from me. Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel is one of those masterpieces. Following the trailers for Isle of Dogs, Anderson’s ambition was clear. Though I expected more hype to precede this particular film. After seeing it, I understand why that is. Stop-motion movies have self-imposed limitations. They hardly vary. Classics such as The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline, and James and the Giant Peach triumph. However, they fall into either comedy or children’s films. That is not a problem whatsoever, but this style rarely transcends those genres. Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is no different in that regard. Nevertheless, it is a fine film with flare all its own. His attention to detail here is astounding, as it always is. He approaches filmmaking with precise geometry and symmetry, giving Wes’ work a signature touch. That has to be my favorite aspect of his movies.
You know exactly whose film it is when the reel starts rolling. This cast pours on the star power. Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray (a frequent Anderson collaborator), Scarlett Johannson, Frances McDormand and more aid in the tale of Atari Kobayashi. Twenty years in the future, on Japanese soil, an epidemic breaks out. Nearly all of the country’s canine population comes down with a disease dubbed “dog flu”. Dog flu, along with snout fever, threatens to infect citizens without swift action. Mayor Kobayashi issues an executive decree which bans every dog to deserted dumps. Trash Island becomes their new home. Crisis averted, right? Not quite. In the film’s prologue it states that Mayor Kobayashi comes from a dynasty of cat lovers. Due to this detail, a conspiracy brews behind closed doors. Atari is the mayor’s distant nephew.
He took Atari in after the boy’s parents died in a train crash which he survived, losing a kidney in the process. However, the mayor and Atari were anything but buddy-buddy. After passing his law, Mayor Kobayashi sent a test dog to Trash Island. Yet this was not any ordinary dog; it was Atari’s bodyguard, Spots. Despite strict orders to solely protect and serve, Spots grew fond of the boy. The two cared deeply for each other. As you can imagine, when a 12-year-old boy loses his dog, things get ugly. As a result of Spots’ deportation, Atari took matters into his own hands. He stole a miniature plane and flew off to Trash Island to reunite with his trusty companion. Atari crash lands and stumbles upon a pack of democratic alpha dogs. Prior to the film’s genesis, Anderson offers a warning to his viewers.
While it doesn’t take long to warm up to it, Isle of Dogs features a language disconnect. Everyone except the dogs and narrators speak Japanese without subtitles. Because of this, my viewing experience felt slightly detached. Stop-motion already takes most of the reality out of the film. Although this art style shines, Anderson’s story structure makes the plot scatter. Amid various flashbacks and characters, the storyline here jumbles and cuts back and forth. Watching this movie is a bit of a journey, which coincides with Atari’s. However, the 101-minute runtime seems longer. The historical timeline is no fun to follow. Luckily, the amount of detail in Wes’ vision drives the story onward. His script is full of charming wit, paying homage to dog lovers everywhere. Despite two bad words, Isle of Dogs is suitable for practically all ages.
As the plot thickens, Atari befriends the dog tribe who in turn agree to help him find Spots. Mayor Kobayashi catches wind of his whereabouts and sends bots and officers to fetch Atari. Of the pack, Chief the Stray (played by Bryan Cranston) is most aloof. While the other four members had former masters, Chief rejects submissive behavior. Even though he’s a tough cookie, his heart softens the longer he’s around Atari. The boy’s determination is infectious. This carries over back on his native land. A foreign exchange student named Tracy Walker (played by Lady Bird‘s Greta Gerwig) sniffs out the mayor’s corruption. After an extended period of time, the mayor announces that his nephew has died on Trash Island. Tracy gathers up her classmates in protest to support Atari’s journey and collect the dog flu cure.
Whilst Mayor Kobayashi aims for re-election, his decree forebodes a greater evil. He plans to exterminate all of the banished dogs on Trash Island backed by the fear of the general public. A brave scientist runs against him and claims to have concocted a dog flu cure. However, the mayor has him poisoned before the information is able to leak. Meanwhile, Atari and the gang track down Spots and team up for one last hurrah. They succeed in dethroning the mayor and melting the ice around his heart. Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is an adorable piece of precise storytelling. Its ambition is both admirable and stifling. At times, the stop-motion brilliance here is enough to sell any moviegoer. Conversely, the staggered storyline and language barrier create a less than immersive viewing experience. Nevertheless, I left the theater with a smile. And, early in 2018, that’s a rarity.