I love Wes Anderson. I love dogs. There was no way I wasn’t going to love this movie. And let me tell you, it does not disappoint!
Right from the opening of the film, where a faux-historical mural created in an unmistakable Japanese style sets up the back-story and motivation, you know you’re in for a treat. Anderson’s meticulous attention to detail and unmatched ability to create charmingly unique fantasy worlds carries the plot on its shoulders. And really, the animation and craftsmanship is – in a word – stunning.
The story is set up by a brief prologue, detailing how wild dogs were domesticated and became beloved pets. But the members of the Kobayashi Dynasty are fiercely dedicated cat-people, and their quest is to unquestionably establish the dominance as cats as the superior pet (although, funnily enough, cats have essentially no role in the film outside of this prologue and the standard lap-cat each “bad” figure has).
Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) of Megasaki, 20 years in the future, has stirred up fear and distress about “snout fever,” and banned all dogs to Trash Island to contain the disease and prevent the spread to humans. It’s on this island where the bulk of the story unfolds, while a subplot continues in Megasaki that attempts to expose corruption and conspiracy at the highest level. American foreign-exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) leads the resistance and tirelessly works to support the pro-dog cause, as well as reveal the vaccine to Dog Flu to the public – developed by Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) and Assistant-Scientist Yoko-ono (Yoko Ono).
Meanwhile, on Trash Island, the audience is introduced to a pack of alpha-male dogs: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and the not-leader of the gang, Chief (Bryan Cranston). It’s through this core group of dogs where the quirky wit and impeccable comedic timing found frequently in Anderson’s films is the most apparent. They help rescue a young boy who crashes his tiny plane on the island in search of his deported dog. Atari (Koyu Rankin) is revealed as the ward of Mayor Kobayashi, who was assigned Spots (Liev Schreiber) as a special guard dog. The fierce love this 12-year-old boy holds for his dog is what drives the plot through all of the antics and crazy side-steps the quest for Spots takes.
The film contains friendship, romance, existential questions, robotic dogs, cannibals, trash incineration, daring escapes, puppies, social action, changes of heart, and more. It’s a film that immerses you into a beautifully crafted world and keeps you entertained from the first moment to the last. And reminds you to give your dog a few extra hugs when you get home.
Anderson continues his tradition of collaborating with the same core group of filmmakers and professionals that he uses in each of his films. Most obvious is the return of actors like Edward Norton, Bill Murray, and F. Murray Abraham. Anderson brought back Tristan Oliver as the Director of Photography, who also worked on Fantastic Mr. Fox. Other returning collaborators include: Film Editors Edward Bursch, Ralph Foster, and Andrew Weisblum, Casting Director Douglas Aibel, Production Designer Adam Stockhausen, and more.
And, of course, there was the incredible score by Alexandre Desplat. I think the Desplat-Anderson combination is one of God’s gifts to cinema and I will defend that belief until the day I die (so much so that I wrote a thesis-length paper for a class that analyzed and dissected the score to The Grand Budapest Hotel in way too much detail…I’m so sorry, Jon).
In any other film, this score would have been distracting. And it certainly didn’t let you forget that music was happening. But because Anderson’s movies are so unforgivably stylized, it works. And it works so much better than any other conventional score could. To say the Japanese influences are obvious would be an understatement. The whole score reaches out and grabs you, not so much forcing as convincing your body to tune in to the rhythmic Taiko drumming that pervades the length of the film. The saxophone lines, the ominous choir, the whistling used in the score and as a plot point – each element does its job perfectly to mirror Anderson’s vision and enhance the drama and emotion of the moment. This is the type of score that I love and live for.
SOME MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW
My top 3 musical impressions are:
- Each musician is listed in the credits. This is incredible and super rare. These people have dedicated their lives to perfect their craft so people like us can have a transformative experience when they go to the movie theater. They deserve this recognition just like the different film interns, catering companies, legal teams, and all of the film support positions do. They are just as important.
- Desplat is a master of layering musical themes. While I need to listen to the score more before I can effectively break it down, this is a technique he’s used in several other of his scores for Anderson films, including Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. We left the theater and my fiancée was humming the bass choir theme/motif more so than the whistled tune that was ACTIVELY used in the film. This guy takes leitmotifs to a new level.
- The overall sonic sphere of the film was exceptionally curated. Desplat integrated the Japanese elements into the score so well that I hardly noticed when we left the score and were instead listening to a piece of source music from Seven Samurai or Drunken Angel (both scores composed by Fumio Hayasaka). However, it was still so uniquely Desplat and uniquely Anderson that The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band also felt perfectly at home in this sonic world. I think each musical element was exceptionally chosen and used to create a unified and satisfying viewing and listening experience.
My top 3 film impressions are:
- The Hacker was the best secondary character I’ve seen in a long time. I don’t know if you can even classify him as a secondary character, maybe tertiary? The role in the film was so minor that I forgot about him numerous times. But each time he popped back up, I instinctively thought “Oh! This guy” and couldn’t help but laugh. Honestly, for me, he was one of the best-executed parts of the film.
- I think the choice to avoid subtitles was really clever. For the American English audience benefiting from the “translated dog barks,” it effectively placed us AS the dogs, who in real life only seem to understand certain words and commands from their owners. As an American who only fluently speaks English, I love the effect it gave. I didn’t need subtitles to know the emotions the human Japanese characters were feeling and what was happening (kudos again to the animators and character designers for this). And, in the places where a translator was used, Frances McDormand brought another layer of humanity in her role as Interpreter Nelson. I can only hope this choice against subtitles is effective for non-English speakers as well, because I loved this decision.
- In a stop-motion film where literally everything included is because of a conscious choice and effort, all of the details and nuances were well chosen and well placed. Again retreating to personal taste, I loved the casting and the visual doggie representation of each actor. Bryan Cranston and Liev Schreiber worked so well as brother characters, even though their shared screen time was short. Shortly before Chief gets his first bath, you can see white spots of fur peeking out through the black dirt in a lovely inverse of Spots’s coat. The names of the alpha male dogs are all stereotypically alpha male dog names. The sushi preparation scene was a work of art in and of itself. The fuzz ball fight clouds and tufts of smoke were ridiculous, hilarious, and unquestionably the best option for depicting these effects. I could go on, but I’d really love to watch the film again before I do.
I will admit that I’m left with a few questions. Who was poor Sport and why was he in the same type of cage as Spots? Just how much brain damage did Atari sustain throughout the film? Are the citizens of Megasaki really okay with a group of children now running the city? However, I did love the scene discussing punishment for dog-abusers in the new dog-friendly society. Sometimes the innocence of children is much more fair and rational than the self-serving and compromised interests of adults.
All in all, Isle of Dogs is a gorgeous film with a heart-warming story and a unique score. How does it get better than that?