Twenty years in the future, in the Japanese archipelago of Megasaki City, an outbreak of dog flu and snout fever has apparently infected the growing canine population which leads Mayor Kobayashi to sign a decree that banishes all dogs to a nearby island full of trash, soon known as the Isle of Dogs. But his adopted nephew Atari steals a plane and flies to the island in search of his beloved dog/protector Spots (Liev Schreiber) and it’s up to a pack of outcast “alpha dogs” – Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and King (Bob Balaban) – to to help in the boy’s quest to get the dog back, while back in Megasaki, American journalist Tracy (Greta Gerwig) starts to unravel a conspiracy when it seems like the higher government powers may have a terrible, murderous secret agenda.
To begin with, the animation is particularly accomplished and makes Isle of Dogs a worthy addition to the world of stop-motion animation films; it’s the longest stop-motion animation feature to date, beating Coraline for the title, and it’s clear that an insane amount of work and patience went into making this film, creating a vast assortment of characters, sets and intricate elements such as fur, water and smoke. So it’s a labour of love from the filmmakers and thankfully, their work was not in vain because the animation is grand, looking impressive on the big screen, and it flows remarkably well, letting us forget that it’s stop-motion after a while. The design of the characters, the dogs in particular, is brilliant because they are able to show so much emotion and varied expressions and the designers and puppeteers deserve plaudits for their expert work. Overall, Isle of Dogs is a marvel to look at because along with the great animation, the film has plenty of style and the colours, lighting and the blocking of shots is imaginative and satisfying to experience; Wes Anderson directs well using his quirky signature style, keeping all the shots perfectly symmetrical, with characters moving in straight lines from one side of the screen to the other, and deserves a certain amount of praise for helming such a technically demanding film.
And complimenting the intricate animation, the film benefits from an excellent score from the unstoppable genius Alexandre Desplat, whose work on The Grand Budapest Hotel was one of the best things about that film by far. In Isle of Dogs, we hear a constant stream of Japanese infused music (as well as an incredibly effective original song) that mostly consists of Taiko drums, which give the film tons of power and dramatic flare, and occasional saxophones and horns, which introduce a sense of quirkiness and subtle comedy. So just like The Grand Budapest Hotel (and most other Wes Anderson films, I’m guessing), the visual style and the music are some of the key selling points of the film.
I may not exactly be a Wes Anderson fan but there’s no denying that the famous filmmaker has imagination and as such, the story of Isle of Dogs is certainly unique and different from most anything that you’ve seen before. Influenced by the likes of Kurosawa, the film can be interpreted as a Samurai film (as Al Murray pointed out on the BBC’s film programme) as the central pack are essentially masterless warriors – one of them a grizzled, reluctant type – who undertake a mission to help a small child; their introduction into the film, appearing together in a line in the distance, is clearly a nod to those films and soon afterwards, they’re shown in a Kurosawa-inspired diagonal line. The film is an intriguing adventure story but perhaps most of all, it’s all about the love that we have for dogs as the film celebrates their loyalty, bravery, intelligence and their love of play and fun and along with all of this, the film has a gentle sense of humour, making a few clever sight gags that provide the film with a few laughs (though I don’t think that the film is exactly laugh out loud funny) and for the most part, the overall writing is smart and snappy.
The only real problem with the film is that, whilst there is that Anderson brand of quirky humour as well as an affection for dogs shown throughout, due to the dark subject matter and animation style, the rest of the film often feels quite cold and emotionally detached. Also, the fact that it’s the longest stop-motion animation so far has it’s downside because Isle of Dogs goes on for just a bit too long and it occasionally gets too ambitious for it’s own good since it overutilises the various flashback sequences and some story elements such as the massive government conspiracy (and indeed most of the scenes featuring Greta Gerwig’s junior reporter character) drag the film down a bit and diverts attention away from the events at Trash Island, where the most interesting things happen. Also for me, the film doesn’t seem to have much rewatch value.
As for the cast, Anderson has once again assembled a mighty ensemble cast and at the head of the pack (HA!), Bryan Cranston is perfectly cast as Chief: a grumpy, grizzled, “only out for himself” stray dog who reluctantly goes along to find Atari’s dog, gradually softening up as the adventure goes on. Cranston’s recognisable gravelly voice is ideal for the part of the craggy, closed-minded Chief and he also does well with the deadpan humour and shows believable warmth when needed; Chief is the film’s best character due to his gruff but ultimately caring nature and Cranston is right at home providing the voice.
The rest of the central pack is made up of Anderson regulars Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Bob Balaban but while it’s great to hear their recognisable voices, their individual characters aren’t that distinctive and aren’t nearly as fleshed out or as memorable as Cranston’s Chief; the distribution of dialogue is also uneven as Norton clearly gets the lion’s share of the lines while Bob Balaban doesnt have much to say at all. The rest of the ensemble cast prove themselves a fine bunch – with Frances McDormand, Liev Schreiber and Courtney B. Vance standing out the most as a news channel translator, dedicated guard dog and the film’s narrator, respectively – and there are plenty of famous names attached to the film such as Ken Watanabe, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Greta Gerwig, Yoko Ono, Harvey Keitel and Scarlett Johansson and they all get their moments to shine.
And Bill Murray’s character of Boss wins the prize for cutest dog.