Few modern directors have a cinematic style as unique, idiosyncratic and identifiable as that of Wes Anderson (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”). It’s for this reason that the director’s name is so frequently used as an adjective, with each new film hailed as the most “Wes Anderson” Wes Anderson film yet, and inspecting his filmography, it’s not hard to see why. In each of his films, the audience explores a wide array of gorgeously crafted, meticulously detailed settings, almost always carrying with them a distinctly vintage feel. From the purposefully baroque “The Grand Budapest Hotel” to the wistful “Moonrise Kingdom,” all of Anderson’s films seem to carry with them echoes of the past, like a story about some long-gone relative passed down by one’s parents. Anderson has seemed, to many, to be unwaveringly true to a singular artistic vision.
However, with the addition of his latest release, “Isle of Dogs,” it seems that old dogs truly can learn new tricks. Set in the near future, the film tells the story of Atari (Koyu Rankin, “Juken”), a young boy separated from his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber, “Ray Donovan”) when Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) of Megasaki City decrees that all dogs must be banished to Trash Island, a desolate, rat-infested pile of garbage off the coast of mainland Japan. Leaving the city behind, Atari comes to Trash Island hoping to reunite with his furry companion. The film’s futuristic landscape, infused with homages to Japanese culture, is a complete departure from anything Anderson has done before. Gone are the picturesque hotels in the Alps and the quaint New-England summer camps. Trash Island, where the majority of the film is set, is disgusting. Infested with rats and barely vegetated, the film’s color palette consists predominantly of reds, greys and blacks. The world of “Isle of Dogs” is one overrun with mankind’s greed, corruption and apathy. It should serve, then, as the ultimate proof of Anderson’s ability that he still manages to make this film beautiful.
That very juxtaposition of beauty and sadness is part of what makes all of Anderson’s films so enthralling. Where “Isle of Dogs” sets itself apart, however, is the scope. Many of Anderson’s characters have dealt with immense personal pains, such as the grieving brothers from “The Darjeeling Limited,” but rarely are these struggles extrapolated into the context of larger social systems. “Isle of Dogs” features its share of touching personal struggles, but at its core is a film that laments mankind’s cruelty while simultaneously celebrating its capacity for good. It examines the personal struggles of people (and dogs) caught up in large, amoral systems. It’s poignant commentary, and one can’t help but see vestiges of Megasaki realized in our own society, one increasingly plagued by greed, pollution and xenophobia.
Captured via stop-motion animation –– Anderson’s second full venture in the medium following 2009’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” –– with a splash of traditional 2D animation, the film is an absolute labor of love from the first frame to the end credits. It’s such an impressive testament to Anderson’s ongoing desire to grow as a filmmaker, and is evident in the pure ingenuity that goes into every scene. He never cuts corners, often introducing breathtakingly intricate backgrounds and settings only to use them for a single scene, sometimes as brief as a few seconds. It’s not all set pieces either; the film’s characters are all animated in such immense detail. The way Anderson has animated watering, tearful eyes in the film is particularly impressive and is sure to evoke some sniffles from the audience.
Anderson begins the film with a disclaimer informing the audience that all characters will speak in their native languages, and that “All barks have been rendered into English.” That is to say, the film’s Japanese characters will go unsubtitled. It’s a curious decision to make, and one that’s stirred some controversy, with Anderson’s harshest critics calling it a way to silence Japanese people in a film that borrows so heavily from their culture. Supporters of Anderson, meanwhile, call it nothing more than a unique design choice for the film, and cite the expansive list of notable Japanese talents involved in the film, including voice cameos from Ken Watanabe (“Rage”), Yojiro Noda (lead singer of the popular Japanese band Radwimps) and Yoko Ono. The film feels almost like a sort of cultural mishmash, blending a plethora of artistic and cultural influences and perspectives. Audiences will have to decide for themselves if this blending more closely resembles cross-pollination or bastardization.
A technical marvel and a clear labor of love, “Isle of Dogs” is a worthy installment in the ever-growing Wes Anderson canon. The film challenges our notions of mainstream animated feature films, which have been hard-pressed to gain recognition as anything more than children’s movies. Significantly darker than “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which was marketed as a family movie, “Isle of Dogs” has a lot to show its audience, and never feels simplified or euphemistic. You wouldn’t expect it from an outlandish film about animated dogs, but “Isle of Dogs” may be one of Anderson’s most impressive and poignant offerings to date. The director continues to cement himself as a prolific auteur who, after 20 years, still hasn’t peaked.