Dogs of warmth
While many of the other major directors of his generation mutated over time, the cinema of Wes Anderson often feels hermetically sealed. Just look at how the youthful explosiveness of Paul Thomas Anderson’s early work has grown increasingly internal and terse with each new release, or the way that Quentin Tarantino has graduated from darkly comic crime films to epic genre pieces.
Yet for all his seemingly left-field forays into stop-motion animation (The Fantastic Mr. Fox), star-crossed romance (Moonrise Kingdom) and historical fantasy (The Grand Budapest Hotel), it still feels like Wes Anderson is making different versions of the same immaculately constructed cuckoo clock. That’s not to say his films don’t vary in quality—The Darjeeling Limited is still hard to swallow, no matter how lovely the design of the teacup, while The Grand Budapest Hotel resonates stronger with each passing year.
But if the Russian nesting doll narratives, the diorama-inspired visuals and an overall tone of droll melancholy in Anderson’s work haven’t charmed you before, his latest film Isle of Dogs will do nothing to change your mind. However, if Anderson’s blend of clinical skill and warming sadness has always hit you in that Nick Drake sweet spot, the “stop-motion animated” (although that term doesn’t do this intensely tactile film justice) Isle of Dogs is another elaborately embossed tchotchke for your cinematic shelf.
As ever with Anderson, the delights are in the details, and the details in Isle of Dogs mostly concern talking dogs, so I was on the hook from the very beginning. True to form, before we even officially begin part one of Isle of Dogs, we have already made it through a prologue, several more explanatory scenes and a musical interlude with Japanese boy drummers. Anderson haters will go bonkers within seconds, but to me, it felt as pure and reassuring as hearing the spine break when beginning a new book.
Another Anderson masterwork of world-building, Isle of Dogs is set in the fictional Megasaki City, a Japanese seaport run by the cat-loving, dog-hating Kobayashi clan. With the city’s canines beset by dog flu, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura, who also receives a co-story credit along with Anderson’s returning collaborators Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola) decrees that all dogs will be banished to Trash Island, a sprawling archipelago of refuse not unlike the junkyard suburb of Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den.
Mayor Kobayashi volunteers his own “family dog” Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber) to be the first canine exile, but months later his adopted nephew Atari (newcomer Koyu Rankin) steals a plane and makes a daring rescue attempt. Atari crash-lands on the island, which is now teeming with dogs, including a gossipy group of abandoned pets (Anderson regulars Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Bob Balaban) and an edgy stray named Chief (Bryan Cranston, doing his best work since Breaking Bad).
The incredible journey that follows is a classic Anderson mix of impeccable craftsmanship and messy emotional payoffs, only with talking dogs this time around.