>sigh< I love Wes Anderson movies…when they’re in animation. The “quirky” label has fit Anderson since he first arrived on the scene with Bottle Rocket, and for the most part I think that’s the best way to describe most of his live-action films. Some are better than others, and to be fair he’s on a roll with Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. But it’s through animation that Anderson reveals his truest heart and imaginative spirit, whether it be Fantastic Mr. Fox or his latest, Isle of Dogs, which may go down as a career best.
Imagine a sci-fi infused Akira Kurosawa flick (one of the characters is even named Gondo ala High & Low) done in stop-motion animation and you get an idea of the eccentric world Anderson has brought to life. It’s really quite remarkable, feeling like a place both in and out of time, feudal and dystopian with modern sensibilities. After a bizarre intro about some kind of war between samurai cat people and dogs, we’re taken into the not-too-distant future where every dog in Megasaki City suffers from a seemingly incurable dog disease. This works out great for Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), a descendant of those dog-hating cat people, so he passes a law that would exile every canine to Trash Island, which is exactly as it sounds.
While the people are swept up in a fervor to rid the city of dogs, the Mayor’s 12-year-old ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) isn’t having it, and sets off in his miniature prop-top jet to Trash Island to find his security dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), the first one sent into exile. Crash landing on the island, Atari is rescued by a rough-looking pack led by Rex (Edward Norton), a former house dog, and Chief (Bryan Cranston), a scrappy stray who has an uncontrollable penchant for biting. Over Chief’s constant protests, the group democratically elects (every vote is worth a laugh) to help Atari find Spots, while back in the city a scandal erupts involving the Mayor and a potential cure for the dog disease.
Anderson makes a bold choice in having all of the human characters speak their native tongue, with only some of it translated. Nearly all of them are Japanese, with the exception of afro’ed exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig), a pro-dog activist and rival to the Mayor. The dogs all woof in English, which is good because that’s how we get to hear Anderson’s stellar voice cast, including Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Yoko Ono and Tilda Swinton as a tiny psychic pug named Oracle. Of course Tilda Swinton is the weird psychic one, who else would it be? Although she only has a couple of lines I couldn’t help feeling that the Ancient One had been reincarnated in the body of this spiritual four-legged friend.
A common complaint from Anderson’s early career is that he was always making films about people who look just like himself. While I think his heart is always in the right place, Isle of Dogs sees the activist side of his persona break through in a story that could fuel the national debate on immigration. Without getting too preachy about it, Anderson cautions against the marginalization and expulsion of minorities, or strays, who are blamed for all of a society’s ills. The high-concept screenplay from Anderson, Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola, and Kunichi Nomura has the smart, whimsy, and charm to win over adults and kids alike, without ever feeling like its catering specifically to either. It does have some rough patches like a saggy middle chapter, and the inclusion of a suicide plot element is just a tad too dark along with a certain set of bones that I will say no more about.
Everything is done in the service of telling a story about the love between a boy and his dog. The Anderson who made Isle of Dogs you can imagine smiling at the way his stop-motion pets’ fur quivers when the wind blows. You can imagine him laughing at the giant dustball that emerges when his characters get into a fight; it’s like something ripped right out of a comic strip. I like this Anderson better than the other one, who is too often distracted with trying to emulate whatever classic director he’s obsessed with at the moment. This is Anderson having the most fun and no surprise Isle of Dogs is Anderson at his most enjoyable.