Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is an incredible piece of cinematography, with stunning stop-motion animation and an emotive, moving story-line. It is set in a dystopian future in the fictional Megasaki City in Japan. A fear of the growing dog disease epidemic causes all dogs to be shipped to Trash Island, the Isle of Dogs. When Atari (Koyu Rankin), a twelve-year old boy, goes to Trash Island to find his dog Spots (Live Schreiber), he falls into the company of five Alpha dogs: Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). The story is layered and framed in a striking manner and is visually pleasing, as you feel the attention to detail and the amount of care that has gone into every frame. The music, by Alexandre Desplat, adds to this, as it too feels carefully crafted and fitting for the film in the magnificent atmosphere it creates.
The tone of the film is mastered and there are fantastical moments of humour that work well. The voice actors were aptly chosen and added lively personas to both the dogs and humans alike. Anderson having worked with many of these actors before in his prior films, such as The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), shows his close bond with many of these performers, such as Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton (Oracle) and countless others.
While the visuals are splendidly detailed, there were times when the screen felt so packed with intricate details that I felt I did not take everything in, and perhaps missed some things. So I think that multiple viewings would help to digest the full spectacle. While I found some shots to be busy and a lot to take in, the film also slows down to divide the narrative into parts. This adds to the story as it compartmentalises the plot, which shows the focus and direction of that section.
One fascinating element of the film is the fact that subtitles are not provided when Japanese characters are speaking. In some cases a news reporter, Interpreter Nelson (Frances McDormand), translates the speech within the diegesis. But in other instances this is not the case: a majority of Atari’s speech is not translated at all and the viewer is left to guess what he is saying from the situation he is in. This adds a hectic feel to the film, as you feel that you are not being given all the information and this makes it at times feel disjointed. Nonetheless, although it is a little mystifying to not know what is being said at all times, it makes the film feel more authentic, and shows the communication barriers that the characters themselves are privy to.
Some critics have argued that the lack of subtitles for Japanese characters, as well as the portrayal of Japanese culture in Isle of Dogs, is a form of cultural appropriation. While I do not disregard these claims or say that there is no argument to be made to support these views, I see in Isle of Dogs a beautifully designed film that is at its core a humane, sweet story with a positive message. I do not think Anderson’s intention was to in any way belittle Asian culture, but instead to create a film that in its meticulous details pays homage to it.
There were some elements that I did not enjoy as much in the film, such as the character of Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig). I feel that she was not a necessary character to the plot and found her to be quite annoying throughout the film. Other than this I had no real gripes with the film and really enjoyed the main thread of the story and the depiction of the other characters, such as Bryan Cranston’s Chief.
Isle of Dogs is a fabulous film, with an incredible aesthetic that makes every shot a stunning masterpiece.