The thing about Wes Anderson is that every film is distinctly him. From “The Royal Tenenbaums” to “Rushmore” and the critically acclaimed “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” his use of direct dialogue and simple shooting process with limited movement and sharp images, it has even been parodied by “Saturday Night Live”. He now has taken his second shot at stop-motion animation after the well-received “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” with “Isle of Dogs”.
Taking place in an alternate-universe Asia, all of Megasaki City’s dogs have come down with an illness that forces Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) to ban them all to Trash Island in order to not affect the city’s people. This includes Spots (Liev Schreiber), who is the guard dog for the mayor’s young ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin). He steals a small plane to go look for his companion and ends up enlisting a pack made of Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Their adventure will take them to the farthest reaches of Trash Island, while on the mainland a group of students fighting to uncover a conspiracy to keep the dogs away and keep the current regime in power, led by foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig).
Anderson is also one of those directors that actors like to work with, shown in a supporting voice cast that boasts Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Fisher Stevens, Courtney B. Vance, and F. Murray Abraham. His work tends to be very hit-or-miss with me, as “Tenenbaums” really did nothing to wow me, although I thoroughly enjoyed “Budapest”. On that spectrum, I can honestly say that this may be my favorite of his films that I have seen thus far. “Isle of Dogs” features a script that is well-written, engaging, and works on multiple different levels in its storytelling. Drawing parallels between our past, our present, and what could be our future, there are both literal and metaphorical themes that are not too preachy by opening discussions of our treatment of others and ultimately ourselves. It plays out like a clever graphic novel, with acts (and even flashbacks) clearly defined, even though it really doesn’t need them. Working with the same team that he did for “Mr. Fox,” the animation style is beautiful and fluid, giving a richer layer to the story as it plays out.
The visuals here are also so strong that it made me think a lot less than normal about the voice cast itself. Each character fits so well with the actor giving them their voice all the way down to McDormand’s interpreter (small but pivotal) that the performances simply complement the visual instead of driving them. There were a couple of moments where I tried to figure out who was who, but that was more because of the type of guy that I am more than perhaps the average moviegoer would.
Even though we are still early in the year, I feel like it is going to take some doing for “Isle of Dogs” not to wind up as one of my favorite films of 2018. I am still on the fence as to which I can say this is a family film, as there are some mature themes involved that earn its “PG-13” rating, but it is still an excellent way to spend a couple of hours as we proceed full-steam towards the summer movie season.