It’s no secret that I and many others have decried the decline of traditional hand-drawn 2D animation. Although 3D computer animation is often visually stunning and technically accomplished, it’s hard to replicate that endearing hand-crafted feel. But, while hand-drawn animation is now more often the purview of indie and foreign films, alternative animation styles have been experiencing a much-welcome renaissance in the western world, thanks to the painstaking process known as stop motion animation. Stop motion, and its sibling, Claymation, have resulted in modern classics like Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Laika’s Kubo and the Two Strings.
But stop motion has also become the passion of specific American directors. Most notably, Tim Burton has adopted the painstaking process, where elaborate figurines are photographed frame by frame, for Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie. Wes Anderson, America’s indie darling, adapted a children’s book for Fantastic Mister Fox. Now, Anderson has returned to stop motion for his allegorical adventure Isle of Dogs, and the results should please both Anderson acolytes and fans of thought-provoking, visually stunning animation.
The film takes place in a futuristic Japanese town where an outbreak of disease has threatened the dog population. To prevent the disease from spreading to humans, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) banishes all dogs to a large, elaborate landfill, where all the other unwanted refuse of society goes to rest. Here, in this stark but oddly beautiful wasteland, a roving pack of dogs fights to survive. The pack is supposedly led by surly stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), but he frequently clashes with the strong-willed Rex (Edward Norton) and his posse of former house pets (voiced by Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum).
Their hardscrabble existence is upended when a makeshift airplane crash-lands on the island, carrying a boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin). The boy has stolen the plane and traveled to the island in search of his lost dog, Spots, but he is soon followed by the high-tech hounds of the Kobayashi empire. You see, Atari is Mayor Kobayashi’s nephew/Ward, and the suspiciously cat-loving mayor can’t have Atari wandering about spoiling his plans. Another fly in the mayor’s ointment: American foreign exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig), an intrepid news reporter with an unshakable hunch that there is a deeper conspiracy going on. Is all of pet kind really at stake? If so, Chief, Rex and the gang may have bitten off more than they can chew.
Isle of Dogs is a movie filled with risky decisions, even for a filmmaker as in love with risk as Anderson. The first risk is making a good chunk of the human dialogue in Japanese, while giving the dogs English voices. What at first seems a strange disconnect soon turns into a bold and frequently entertaining creative risk. I love all the tactics Anderson comes up with to interpret for the audience: sometimes it’s on-screen text, sometimes it’s an on-screen interpreter (yes, that is Frances McDormand as Kobayashi’s official interpreter), sometimes it’s nothing at all (we never, for example, get subtitles for Atari’s frequent dialogue, and even the dogs are confused, since none of them speak Japanese). Anderson and the actors do a terrific job of mining the lack of communication for big laughs, and also leave room for a potent statement about modern communication and the ways in which we talk past one another.
Similar to the dialogue, the visuals of the film also cobbled together in a way that somehow still feels impeccably crafted and deliberate. There’s just something so endearing and heartfelt about a film entirely crafted by hand, and it’s a joy as a viewer to recognize the extreme attention to the detail the filmmakers bring to the project. Is that cloud made of cotton? Is that parachute made of tinfoil? How many days of painstaking work did it take to film that very brief sumo wrestling scene? Or that miniscule cherry blossom wafting onto a dog’s cheek? Make no mistake: Isle of Dogs is a true game-changer from a visual perspective. It’s at the same level as Kubo and the Two Strings in terms of pushing stop motion animation forward, and like Kubo its filled with vibrant colors and details inspired by Japanese culture and myth. But, while Kubo was designed to look more like paper craft, this film feels more like a 3D felt board played upon by the most wild imagination in all of film-making. There are even sequences that transition to vibrant, traditional hand-drawn animation, showing that Anderson and company are aware of and grateful for the films of the past that inspired them.
One of the main reasons I’ve been so ambivalent to Wes Anderson as a filmmaker in the past is that his characters can often feel more like caricatures than flesh-and-blood creations. It has nothing to do with style: Anderson creates fantasies and fables, and “realism” is not in his cinematic language. Rather, I feel as though his characters are often reduced to catchphrases and quirks, and the more odd chaps he adds to his elaborate dollhouses, the less they make an impact. While I enjoyed Fantastic Mr. Fox, it still mostly felt like a traditional Anderson movie with a different coat of paint.
Thankfully, Isle of Dogs sidesteps many of those concerns by giving us richly drawn characters and a timeless fable about the bond between a boy and his pet. I love the film’s use of flashback scenes to flesh out its characters and, while not all of them get this treatment, the story’s most important players do. This context gives the film an emotional resonance that I feel Anderson’s work often lacks, as do the subtle-but-effective themes of death, racism, prejudice and government corruption.
Isle of Dogs is, in many ways, a movie for adults. It’s certainly sad and disturbing enough to turn away little kids. But, for older kids and teens especially, I think there is an irresistible undercurrent of melancholy behind all the colorful visuals and adorable dogs (seriously, they’re cute) that many may find irresistible. And, along the way, they might get a valuable lesson on the importance of treating “the other” with dignity and respect (and, while we’re at it, the importance of a free and independent press in holding politicians accountable). Come to think of it, these are lessons many of us adults need to learn as well.
Wes Anderson is no revolutionary when it comes to politics, and unlike recent animated efforts like Zootopia, Isle of Dogs isn’t at all didactic or heavy handed in its messaging. It’s simply a sweet, creative story, told with impeccable craftsmanship by a filmmaker at his creative peak. This is one of the more memorable animated films of recent years, and certainly one of Anderson’s best. The eccentric and beloved auteur may have finally (literally) crafted a film that anyone can enjoy.