Doggy Style

Isle of Dogs
(USA, 101 min.)
Written and directed by Wes Anderson
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schreiber, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Courtney B. Vance, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Give Wes Anderson a bone! His latest film Isle of Dogs is pooch perfection. Even a die-hard cat person will fall head over heels in love with this movie and leave the theatre doing little back flips whilst yapping for joy.

Anderson returns to the bright and wonderful world of animation after 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and his new storybook lark might be his best film yet. Trading foxes for dogs but keeping the story world within the wonderful Canidae family, Anderson delivers a fanciful universe that is bound to put an exuberant smile on the face of anyone who sees it. Isle of Dogs is honestly the most wonderful 101 minutes I’ve spent in a theatre for as long as I can remember.

Get ready to run since this energetic adventure doesn’t skip a beat once the thunderous kettledrums summon its opening act. Isle of Dogs unfurls with the madcap energy of The Grand Budapest Hotel and the whimsy of Fantastic Mr. Fox as Anderson transports audiences two decades into the future to the mythical city of Megaski, Japan where an outbreak of Snout Fever threatens the dog population. Megaski’s nasty leader (and unabashed cat person) Mayor Kobayashi banishes all afflicted pooches to the exile colony of Trash Island. Dogs may be considered man’s best friend, but Kobayashi shows them no respect.

The pets left stranded on the island of misfit toys have banded into factions. Our story features a muttley crew of five dogs—four stranded pets and one stray mutt. The domestic quartet includes Rex (Edward Norton), a goodie goody loyal type; Boss (Bill Murray), a chipper if slightly basic former mascot of a baseball team; Duke (Jeff Goldblum), a chatty critter who sticks his nose in other dogs’ business; and King (Bob Balaban), a celebrity on Trash Island for his glory days as the spokesdoggie of Doggy Chop treats. The mutt joining these boys is Chief (Bryan Cranston), a rebellious iconoclast who follows his nose for survival.

Snout Fever and Dog Flu afflict all these pups and they wheeze and sneeze as they traverse Trash Island in search of better food. Along the way, they encounter a young human, Atari (Koyu Rankin), who crashes on the island while searching for his dog Spots that was taken by the decree of his uncle, Mayor Kobayashi. As the dogs help Atari search for Spots (Chief begrudgingly so), they navigate the kindred bond that humans share with non-human animals. The aspect of companionship is a vital elixir that gives these doggies hope: if one young boy is trying to save his pet, perhaps the other dog owners of Megasaki want their four-legged friends to come home safely.

There’s more to the story, however, as the humans and animals learn. Isle of Dogs features a sprawling ensemble of characters within this animated animal empire as Anderson offers countless personalities to add colour to the tale. Some snippets introduce a plucky American exchange student named Tracy (Greta Gerwig) who spins wild yet plausible conspiracy theories alleging Mayor Kobayashi’s pro-cat faction. (The film is hilariously wicked towards cat people as if we’re all kitty-stroking villains from James Bond movies.) The human world features a gaggle of scientists (including one voiced by Yoko Ono) working feverishly and tirelessly to devise cures for Snout Fever and Dog Flu so that the pets of Megaski will return home.

The non-dog characters speak in their native tongue (re: untranslated Japanese/Japanese-ish) while Anderson translates the local dialect of the dogs into English. The result adds an amusing panache of culture clash as Anderson turns the tables on the conventional mode of communication between humans and animals: we don’t know what the other is saying, but we pretend to understand. Dogs features some running translation by American news translator Nelson (Frances McDormand) who interprets the goings-on in Megasaki with occasional commentary.

The sprawling cast extends to equally memorable turns and cameos in the dog world with Scarlett Johansson appearing as Nutmeg, a show dog who wins Chief’s attention and a pair of sage advisors voiced by F. Murray Abraham and Tilda Swinton. Every performance big and small is something to cherish as the actors give frisky and lively readings to bring these canines to life.

Anderson truly creates a unique world that enchants with every step the dogs take. The stop-motion animation is gorgeously conceived and realized. The dogs are scruffy and dishevelled—far from the crisp lines and perfectly rounded characters one sees in CGI designs, and the offbeat characterization of the dogs and their world finds humour in their imperfections. Despite their storybook coats and jerky movements, the dogs have eyes that sparkle with lifelike clarity and personality. These dogs have feelings and one can see it in their eyes.

The cleverness of the cinematic universe of Trash Island is a remarkable sight. Ingenious production design by The Grand Budapest Hotel’s team of Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod creates a doggy dystopia of garbage and refuse, while the details of Megaski, like the feline-adorned murals of Kobayashi’s lair, thrill with the subtle elements of character they inject into every frame. The music by Anderson regular Alexandre Desplat might be the very best work yet in an illustrious career as the score of Isle of Dogs sparkles with notes of enchantment and innocent bliss—like the whimsical happiness dogs must feel when something new is in the air. From concept through execution, the film is pure doggy style.

The brisk pacing of Isle of Dogs ensures that Chief, Atari, and the other mutts traverse the island quickly to allow audiences to marvel at the wonder of their environment. The storytelling has a unique indebtedness to Japanese cinema as well, for Anderson and company liken chief to a canine Yojimbo as he roams the land like a rebellious anti-hero. Each scene is steeped in folklore and cinephilia, and the humour treads a delicate balance of homage and whimsy. The film is a tale about respecting outsiders and seeing beyond difference—there’s an unexpected humanity to the film with its message about community and xenophobia.

Isle of Dogs is a marvel of storytelling and direction as Anderson creates a warm affinity between the dogs and their human allies. Any animal lover is bound to relate to the comforting warmth a pet provides as Chief softens up to Atari and helps the boy find his cherished friend. Even an unabashed cat lover could not recommend the company of these dogs enough.

Isle of Dogs opens in theatres March 23rd.