Isle of Dogs sounds like "I love dogs" if you say it really fast and I can't imagine that's an accident. Known for his heartless penchant for killing man's best friend in movies like The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, writer/director Wes Anderson seems out to prove his innocence with his latest feature. Isle of Dogs is a love letter to canines and their owners, and it's just about perfect.
Anderson's previous feature, 2015's The Grand Budapest Hotel, might be his greatest film. It's certainly up there, and many wondered how he would top it. Enter Isle of Dogs three years later. Overflowing with Anderson's rapier wit and choking melancholy, the stop-motion feature is just as visually stunning as anything he's done before. It's almost impossible to imagine this film emerging from today's remake-happy, creatively bankrupt pop culture, but here we are. It's the best American film of 2018 so far.
Set in the dystopian Pacific, 20 years in the future, Isle of Dogs presents a paranoid Japan where "canine saturation has reached epidemic proportions" and every pupper is quarantined on a trash island to contain a deadly "snout fever." Using flashbacks and different settings, Anderson tells the story of a "little pilot," 12-year-old Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) — a precocious stalwart determined to rescue his hopefully-still-alive good boy, named Spots. When he arrives on the Isle of Dogs in his mini-plane, Atari meets five "alpha dogs" (voiced by Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Jeff Goldblum) who decide to help the boy on his quest.
(They are not the last he meets, as the film is filled with puppies of all shapes, sizes, and creeds. The star-studded voice cast is expansive and features appearances by Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Liev Schreiber, Courtney B. Vance, Ken Watanabe, and even Yoko Ono.)
Back in Japan, a generously freckled American exchange student, Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), uncovers a conspiracy and, when she hears about Atari, promptly develops a crush on him. There seems to be another reason dogs are being targeted, and that subplot runs parallel to the main story of Atari and his new friends.
One of Anderson's likely inspirations for Isle of Dogs are the many "cat islands" in Japan that have become internet fodder in recent years. His fans will obviously also reference Fantastic Mr. Fox, his first stop-motion film, as a spiritual original to this one. That wouldn't be totally wrong. Anderson uses some of the same sight gags (fights disappear into Looney Tunes dustups, for example) as in Fox, but it's much different. Isle of Dogs is darker and more pathos-prone than Fox. I accepted that as par for the animal-loving course in a film about dogs, which I have a much deeper connection to than foxes and badgers.
Isle of Dogs also exists in a much weirder place. Dystopian Japan is a dream setting for Anderson and he takes full advantage with every hand-crafted mise-en-scène. The dogs pop against the muted garbage wasteland, and the retro-future style is at once ominous and hilarious. Anderson and his team never fails to surprise from sequence to sequence with dazzling details. This is a vivid portrait of the future brought to life from scratch.
Anderson fans will be excited to get another amazing prologue sequence in Isle of Dogs, something the director has mastered over the course of his career since introducing his style in Rushmore. The director's prologues are always showstoppers, and this one is filled with manga-inspired art and other Japanese details you can't believe Anderson remembered. But that's what he does. He's a master at plucking the perfect detail for the perfect moment (like a rescue St. Bernard appearing to help a man in Grand Budpest). Isle of Dogs gives us Kabuki theater, samurai, sushi prep, sumo wrestlers, woodblock art, tributes to Kurosawa and Godzilla, and a thumping, taiko drum-infused score by the great Alexandre Desplat. Anderson's film is a tribute to the undying loyalty of man's best buddy, sure, but it's also a tribute to Japan itself.
While the writing and art direction, as always, remain the stars of this new Wes Anderson movie, there's something to be said for the filmmaker's decision to use science-fiction to tell his story. Long a political genre, sci-fi stories are often allegories for politics and I wondered how Anderson might comment on today's embarrassing combustible climate in America. Surely, I hypothesized, one of the great artists of our time will have something to say. Here is a film about a political decision essentially — to rid the world of dogs — and humanity's knee-jerk response to rescue them materialized in the form of a pre-teen. It's a movie about hope in a time of delusion. That's something we can all relate to these days, even when there is none. It seems Anderson has learned to not kill the dog.