There’s no shortage of lenses through which Isle of Dogs can be examined. It is a PG-13 animated feature (a rarity for Western animation), a mainstream stop-motion animated feature (a rarity in general), the latest installment of modern auteur Wes Anderson’s canon of films, and a remarkable case-study on the aspects and challenges of cross-cultural influence in film production. It is the story of a boy and his dog. Wes Anderson has directed a multitude of fascinating live-action films including Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom, and my personal favorite, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
However, Wes Anderson is also no stranger to the realm of stop-motion animation, with Isle of Dogs preceded by Fantastic Mr. Fox, the charming 2009 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s novel. Isle of Dogs is a story set along the fictional Japanese metropolis of Megasaki, where a “dog flu” outbreak has prompted the government to forcibly relocate all dogs to an offshore island of garbage before the disease spreads to humans. The story unfolds as twelve-year-old Atari, a boy protected by the mayor who ordered the quarantine, ventures into the garbage island to rescue his dog, Spot.
As a narrative device, the human characters speak in unsubtitled Japanese while the canines speak amongst themselves in English. Although this lingual element raises the question of how the film is differently perceived by those fluent in Japanese, Anderson’s usage of human body expressions, vocal tones, and news translations only on the Japanese characters render the film much more understandable for Western audiences.
The film is divided up into a sequence of a “prologue”, leading into multiple consciously announced “chapters”—not dissimilar to Anderson’s usage of seasons and semesters to divide ‘chapters’ two decades earlier in Rushmore. The film uses a variety of jump cuts and abrupt mid-shot pans (Wes Anderson has cited Eisenstein as one of his stylistic influences, and that is very apparent in this film.) Although I found the transitions to be intense, atmospheric taiko drums and the acoustic indie music more standard in Anderson’s films, the implementation of the director’s style into a multilayered narrative—into an animated space—is incredibly intriguing to see in the film and comes off with a very sleek charm. The art direction for Isle of Dogs specifically accented recognizable stop motion in a way that assures the audience that they are not watching just another CGI-animated talking animal movie.
As Anderson’s second stop-motion feature, Isle of Dogs is a darker film than Fantastic Mr. Fox. The film deals with themes and motifs including political corruption, dogfighting, disease, and off-screen mention of suicide. Plane crashes and other explosions are illustrated through dust clouds and overlaid 2D blood when necessary. It doesn’t need saying that this film is no Minions, and with mature themes, it is better suited for an adult audience.
Although Isle of Dogs, as a fantasy film, is hardly representative of authentic Japanese culture, it is a fascinating blend of humor, action, and pathos. The film is an incredibly crafted work of animation, and any fans of stop-motion or Wes Anderson will find a lot to enjoy.
COVER PHOTO: IndieWire