Wes Anderson loves dogs. His new film is called Isle of Dogs, geddit? And in it, he imbues a motley crew of misfit mutts with all the profundity, oddness and humanity he has given to such rich characters as Max from Rushmore, Steve Zissou from The Life Aquatic, Gustave from The Grand Budapest Hotel and, perhaps with most relevance here, Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Like that fantastic fable, Isle of Dogs is a stop-motion animated feature film that tackles huge themes with whimsy and intimate humanity. In an alternate-reality Japan, dogs have been exiled, for fear of disease, to their own island. When a young human pilot crashes there, a pack of them lead him on an adventure to find his own missing mutt, and, along the way, learn a lot about themselves, their country, and the world.
The animation is exquisite – and fully appreciable as being hand-made, with love. The humour is as dry as Anderson has ever offered, delivered by an astonishingly deep-bench voice cast: Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Greta Gerwig, Bob Balaban, Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, Liev Shreiber, Courtney B. Vance, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono… They come because they know Anderson is special, one-of-a-kind, and Isle of Dogs is certainly that. All praise be to the various international companies who together funded this film. It is heartwarming that someone like Anderson can not just survive, but flourish, and produce work as deeply personal and idiosyncratic as this, let alone get a relatively mainstream worldwide release.
The film is staggeringly beautiful, and if at times the tale seems a little shaggy-dog, there’s nothing stopping you from simply letting the gorgeousness of the visuals overwhelm you. Anderson’s classic framing and camera techniques are in full effect, as are his chapter headings, his unique pacing, and his non-linear storytelling. But, as with Grand Budapest Hotel, it’s clear that Anderson is concerned with more than he used to be. That film, and Isle of Dogs, are thematically richer, deeper and more profound than any of his previous work. He’s looking at war, retribution, notions of nationality and nationalism, isolationism, culture and individualism. And he’s doing it with stop-motion dogs. He’s something else, one of a kind, and we’re lucky to have him. Isle of Dogs is sublime. Don’t miss it at the cinema.