Wes Anderson has returned to stop motion animation with his new film, Isle of Dogs, after his first foray using this technique in Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). The release of Isle of Dogs has drawn much anticipation, as have projects from most of the current crop of auteur directors, whether they be Martin Scorsese or the Coen brothers; Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) earn him that status, too. Fortunately for fans of Anderson, Isle of Dogs lives up to, and perhaps even exceeds, the expectations set by his previous works—though not without some controversy.
Set in the near future in dystopian Japan, newly-elected mayor Kobayashi of the fictional city Megasaki banishes all dogs to Trash Island as a result of the flu virus spreading through the dog population. He does so in spite of his political rival’s efforts to concoct a cure. The first dog deported, Spots, is a guard dog for Atari Kobayashi, the nephew and ward of the mayor.
The film uses this framework to examine corrupt politicians, suppression of scientific knowledge, and the power of student journalism and protest. In the current American political climate, addressing these issues in different mediums of art could not be more prescient or necessary. The central storyline, revolving around Atari’s mission to find Spots, allows Anderson to create one of the most curious atmospheres on film since Grand Budapest Hotel.
As is characteristic of Anderson films, actors speak blunt, forceful dialogue without the emotional affect one would expect. The audience is left to fill in the emotional gaps left by this cinematic technique, which at times can be awkward, yet still leaves viewers feeling intensely joyous or sad. Viewers will leave this film feeling that it is truly possible to become the person—or dog, as it were—that you want to be. At the same time, the film engages with the universally paralyzing fear of mortality.
Appearances aside, Isle of Dogs is not just a film for children (rather, the film is rated PG-13). Although the film uses stop motion animation in the same vein as Fantastic Mr. Fox, older audiences should let go of the false pretense that Isle of Dogs is too infantile for their taste. It will be interesting to see whether adult audiences are dissuaded by Isle of Dogs’ use of stop motion.
While engaging more adult themes than Fantastic Mr. Fox, the cinematography and mise-en-scène is undeniably, unabashedly Wes Anderson. However, in the nearly decade-long gap between the creation of the two films, Anderson has become more ambitious in what he asks from his animators. Unlike his previous films, Isle of Dogs displays Anderson’s ability to create and find the beauty in what is literally garbage. It’s easy to find beauty in the nostalgia of 1960s summer camps and decadent European hotels, but Anderson proves his virtuosic ability to find pure aesthetic beauty even in a setting as ugly as Trash Island.
Anderson’s meticulous attention to the most insignificant details of filmmaking is what separates him from merely good directors and makes him one of the most technically competent directors working today. While many directors would ignore the images displayed on TVs within the film, Anderson uses this tiny detail to pay homage to the Japanese culture from which he is borrowing. Rather than just playing miniature versions of the content that occurs in the world of film, Anderson’s TVs use an entirely different, 2D animation style that mimics the art style of anime. And the scene in which a chef prepares sushi beautifully alludes to the legacy of anime’s wonderful depiction of making food.
Yet, Anderson’s technical and formal achievements in depicting Japanese culture are undermined by problematic artistic choices. Film critic Justin Chang, first in a wave of critique, noted the biggest of these problems: Anderson’s choice to dub English over Japanese rather than using English subtitles. At any point in the film where there would be extended Japanese dialogue, Frances McDormand’s character, an English interpreter, loudly dubs over the original language. The effect is a loss of connection to any of the Japanese-speaking characters, who begin to feel external. One might ask: Why does this story need to be told in Japan? It appears as if Anderson found himself with a compelling story that fit into the context of his existing filmography, but had also binge watched a set of Akira Kurosawa films and felt obliged to make a “Japanese” film.
Despite this frustration, Isle of Dogs is still the film to see in theaters this quarter. The emotional resonance, commitment to technical excellence, and attention to aesthetic beauty ultimately outweigh the problems that do exist.