An incredible and absurdist film, but one that's profoundly relevant
With not being particularly familiar with Wes Anderson's previous work, but a big fan of stop-motion animation, I had no idea what to expect. I thought – having seen the trailer – I may get some slightly bizarre, other-worldly tale of a boy and his dog. And I suppose I did really! But there's so much more going on here. What makes this movie so accessible is that it can be enjoyed on so many levels by people of just about any age. For me, the movie was contemplative of the political climate we find ourselves in. Particularly on the subjects of capitalism, authoritarianism and of immigration.
But yeah...it's also a film about a boy and his dog!
In the dystopian, near-future Japanese city of Megasaki, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) issues a decree that all dogs be outlawed and quarantined to "trash island" due to an outbreak of snout fever that is threatening to cross species. Although this motion is put to a vote, it's clear that people have been manipulated by the state-controlled media; with interpreter Nelson (Frances McDormand) pondering: "Whatever happened to man's best friend?"
Despite Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito), of the science party assuring people that he can find a cure within six months; the vote is overwhelmingly in favour of the government.
To demonstrate his commitment, the first dog to be dispatched is Spots (Liev Schreiber), the pet and bodyguard of Kobayashi's orphaned nephew, Atari. As Spots is caged and taken away, Atari (Koyu Rankin) watches from the shadows.
We're soon introduced to the dominant group of dogs as they challenge another pack over food scraps. A rag-tag pack consisting of Rex, Boss, King, Duke and their leader, Chief (Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum and Bryan Cranston respectively). The ensuing fight (which is essentially just a ball of cotton wool with limbs sticking out) is indicative of the look and feel about the film as a whole; it's scrappy and rough, but the attention to detail is phenomenal. After seeing off the rival group and eating the food scraps, a small plane – piloted by Atari – stutters overhead and crashes. Upon finding the "little pilot", the group debate whether to aid him or not. Chief insists on abandoning him, but the others "put it to a vote" (they like voting on things, a lot) and set about searching for Spots.
The film gets off to a sluggish start; taking a long time to establish the characters and setting. This isn't necessarily a criticism, and it didn't bother me in the slightest, but it will undoubtedly put some people off. It's only during the second act that the film really seems to get moving; with our group's departure to the other side of trash island, where they've learned Spots may be the prisoner of a tribe of "cannibal dogs."
The visuals on display are nothing short of stunning. From the loving close-ups of the dogs remembering their favourite treats, with fur ruffling in the wind, to the panoramic shots of the landscape complete with cellophane rivers. The attention to detail is amazing throughout the film; not just in the principle subject of the scene, but in the background too. A relief, as movies like this, tends to live and die on the quality of the animation.
That's not to say the story isn't important though, and I'm happy to report that on the whole, it doesn't disappoint. Despite persistent flicking between scenes on trash island and scenes concerning the ongoing political situation in Megasaki; I never got confused or lost. My only criticism with the story is that during the first act and beginning of the second act we invest a lot of time with Rex, King, Boss, and Duke; with Chief being more in the background. But then, during the end of the second act and into the third act, this dynamic changes and Chief takes centre stage. This is fine, and narratively, there's a valid reason for it, but I did kind of feel that the other dogs got swept aside and lost along the way as a result. I did have concerns that my children (ages five and eight) might have had trouble keeping up or even lost interest. They didn't, and both enjoyed the movie very much.
The Isle of Dogs is a beautiful, hilarious and intelligent movie. With a PG rating; it's certainly suitable for children, and mine loved it. Be that as it may, this is not a sweet and cuddly film and some children may find certain scenes a little intense. Right near the beginning of the movie, a dog has an ear chewed off, and later, we're shown a chef preparing live sushi; nothing too graphic, but it's worth considering if you have squeamish or sensitive children.
The cinematography and soundtrack work in almost perfect unison to create a film that – when it wants to be – is surprisingly moving and always, utterly breathtaking. So perfecting is the stop-motion animation with the ambience of the film that it's hard to think of this movie existing in any other arrangement. There is so much going on, and so much detail layered throughout that I didn't feel satisfied with just one viewing. It is a movie that demands to be purchased and scrutinised again and again, and I for one am only too happy to oblige.