In a near-future Japan, a flu virus infects the dog population. The mayor of Megasaki City, Kobayashi, banishes all dogs to Trash Island, despite a scientist and political rival, Professor Watanabe, protesting that he is close to finding a cure. Megasaki City is emptied of all dogs.
Six months later, the Mayor’s 12-year-old ward, Atari, runs away from home, steals a plane and flies to Trash Island to find his dog, Spots. After a crashing his plane, he is rescued by a pack of five Alpha dogs: Rex, King, Duke, Boss, and Chief. They help Atari search for Spots. They find evidence that he may be on the outer reaches of the island. The Mayor sends dog catchers, robot dogs and an assortment of thugs to “rescue” his ward. Atari’s presence on the island threatens to interrupt the Mayor’s plan to destroy its canine population.
Filmmaker Wes Anderson is very much an acquired taste. His early films RUSHMORE (1998) and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001) established the finely-worked look and emotional detachment of much of Anderson’s storytelling. There is something painterly and distant about his movies. The audience is invited to enjoy the dazzling surface, but not necessarily get too involved with the goals and the plight of the characters. The majority of his projects have an attention to visuals and production design that invariably attract descriptors like “precise”, “twee” and “doll-like” depending on how much one loves or loathes the end result.
Somehow, some of the most overtly human and emotional moments can be found in Anderson’s films made with actual dolls, as in his animated features FANTASTIC MR. FOX and his new stop-motion offering ISLE OF DOGS. How can an animated puppet of a boy hugging a dog make an audience feel so much? The stop-motion techniques here are second-to-none. From the creation of believably alive canines and humans to minutely realised natural landscapes, this is a breathtakingly beautiful world; even the blighted and damaged places are artfully constructed. The script, which is mostly well-paced and tight, is beautifully voiced by Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Akira Ito and Scarlett Johansson.
A key strength of ISLE OF DOGS is the story involving the interaction of the dog characters with each other. There is something insightful and amusing seeing canine behaviour interpreted in human terms, as in an early scene where our Alpha dogs confront another pack over a potential meal. It’s a negotiated stand-off and then an all-in brawl that moves seamlessly from deadpan wit into Tex Avery slapstick without missing a beat.
The film’s mis-step, according to a number of commentators is in the area of cultural appropriation. This issue has numerous levels that I will not attempt to encapsulate here, because of my own heritage. I spent many years looking for Asian faces and voices in Australian and Hollywood product and I am still evolving my thoughts on this. So, I choose not to discuss this subject, that I care deeply about, here. I do know I enjoyed this movie. We connected.
It is the connection between dogs and people that is the film’s other key element. This age-old symbiotic relationship runs deep in various cultures. How we treat dogs—whom we say we love—says much about us. Or to put it another way, the movie reminds us that how we treat the least the powerful in society, tells us exactly who we are. ISLE OF DOGS is a touching, funny and visually stunning offering from Wes Anderson. 101 minutes. (9/10)