Sometimes, it really does feel like there are two kinds of filmmakers: those who are able to adapt their style to different stories across different genres and those for whom their distinctive storytelling approach is the very reason moviegoers would want to see their latest release. Without doubt, Wes Anderson falls into the latter. He is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a writer/director who decided decades ago the tropes that he would develop into his signature. If you don’t believe us, just ask Honest Trailers.
From its very first trailer, we could tell that Isle of Dogs — Anderson’s ninth feature film — would bear all the hallmarks of his previous entries, featuring the offbeat storytelling and dry-as-hell humor that made him a budding cinephile’s dream come true. However, the film also marks the writer/director’s return to stop-motion animation for the first time since he adapted Roald Dahl’s 1970 novel Fantastic Mr. Fox back in 2009. And, while fans may debate the comparative merits of Anderson’s only two animated films (so far), his latest is arguably as Andersonian as ever.
Set in a dystopian Japan beset by “canine flu,” Isle of Dogs largely follows a pack of exiled mutts — the leader of which is expertly voiced by Bryan Cranston — who discover a young boy who has crash-landed on their home, a literal Trash Island, in search of his lost pet. Of course, in true Anderson fashion, the narrative splinters off at various points and features a number of structural oddities, such as sporadic flashbacks and a series of divided segments. While such interruptions can make the film feel a bit spastic, it’s all part of the fun and keeps the pace moving along swiftly.
Despite its at-times sprawling nature, the story of Isle of Dogs never seems overly convoluted or overwhelming. If anything, it is very precise about the details it reveals at any given moment, only sharing plot points when it becomes pertinent to the main action. There’s a certain madcap energy to the film that will either enrapture or alienate viewers, depending in all likelihood on their feelings of Anderson’s previous work. Yet, coupled with the visual delight at play in Isle of Dogs, it’s difficult not to at least marvel at the production value Anderson and his team have put into this project.
Although his films are known for their symmetrical framing and ornate art direction, Anderson’s vision here — and he is one of those directors for whom “visionary” feels like less of a cliche and more of a qualifier — encompasses not just how he captures the world of his story but the specific environment he has created. It’s more than just a period piece or a film that hones in on a specific subset of our own world. Isle of Dogs creates one of its own, and it is a stunningly original world indeed. It certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s accompanied by a rollicking score from returning Anderson composer Alexandre Desplat, who won an Academy Award for his work on The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Even with all the detail Anderson and his team have put into creating Trash Island and the culture that has deemed it a home for discarded dogs, a backlash has already formed about Isle of Dogs. The film has been accused of cultural appropriation, and while there’s no denying that the Japanese culture is an integral part of the film’s story, its usage here — at least in the eyes of this critic — appears to bear no ill will and actually proves to be a loving homage to Japan’s ways and its people. Nevertheless, there may be a valid argument for some who feel like it employs Japanese culture as a novelty, exploiting its exotic appeal without really bring any substantive commentary to it. Whether the film needs to is another story and one that each viewer will have to answer independently.
For Anderson devotees, there’s a lot to love about Isle of Dogs. Though Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Greta Gerwig and others are new to his world, a number of Anderson regulars are along for the ride. Isle of Dogs boasts an incredible ensemble cast that includes heavy-hitters like Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Frances McDormand and Bob Balaban. Because so many of the actors have worked with him, they are acutely attuned to his rhythm and slip easily into the tale at the center of Isle of Dogs. As is often the case with Anderson’s filmography, the film is meticulously cast, and the fact that so many top talents (far too many to name here, in fact) were eager to work with the director is a testament to his specific voice and heavily lauded track record.
Isle of Dogs, as many surmised, embodies all of the attributes that fans have come to love from Anderson. This filmmaker is unabashed in his devotion to his craft and to executing his particular vision his own way, a quality that makes him one of the truest auteurs of our time. Still, the very same quality that is his strength only underscores the current, ultra-polarized time we’re living in. For those who find Anderson’s style overrated or repetitive will likely balk at Isle of Dogs just the same. But fans relishing in another opportunity to see one of their favorite filmmakers spin yet another outlandish tale will probably rank this among their favorite films of 2018.