By Billy Jepma ’18
When it comes to Wes Anderson, making films that fit an easy definition or genre is simply not possible. This has proven true in the past with films like “Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and it continues with gleeful absurdity in his newest film, the stop-motion animated “Isle of Dogs.”
“Isle of Dogs” is a strange beast. It follows a young boy who, after crash landing on Trash Island––a literal island of trash where all the dogs of a dystopian near-future Japan are sent in order to combat the strange dog flu virus––finds himself recruited by a pack of dogs who decide to help him find his way back.
While the boy’s original intent for venturing to the island is to find his own lost dog, he quickly gets wrapped up in a complex tale where mystery and conspiracies abound. It’s at once a heartwarming tale of friendship, a subtly scathing political commentary on the dangers of immigration and discrimination, and a menagerie of vibrantly colored environments.
On the surface, such a film shouldn’t work. Yet, it somehow ends up working and working well. For all its oddities, the film is a lovely exploration of relationship and childhood adventure, and absolutely deserves to be experienced over and over again.
The cast of voice-actors consists of many of Wes Anderson’s usual posse of performers, with few exceptions, and both the English and Japanese speaking actors do great things with the material they are given.
Bryan Cranston is the clear star here as Chief, the closest thing a leader his pack has. Cranston does a wonderful job at emphasizing the emotional complexity of Chief’s journey from gruff and distrustful loner to faithful ally of young Atari Kobayashi, who finds himself stranded with the dogs on Trash Island early on in the film.
While many of the film’s characters are straightforward twists on familiar archetypes, Anderson still makes them work. He imbues each member of his ragtag cast with enough individuality that their endearing quirks make up for some otherwise thin character development.
Despite a play that, while fun, feels simpler than much of Anderson’s other work, “Isle of Dogs” might just be one of his most beautiful films to date.
Anderson’s direction revels in the reds and oranges of his near-reality setting, and his signature wide-shots capture the stunning scale and beauty of his meticulously crafted sets with visual ingenuity.
However, there is an argument to be had for Anderson’s employment of Japanese culture bordering on appropriation. As much as his love and respect for Japan shows in “Isle of Dogs,” it’s hard to ignore that this is yet another American filmmaker using a foreign landscape in order to fulfill his own personal vision.
“Isle of Dogs” never strays into obvious problems in this regard, but it does skirt the line in a few areas, especially in regards to its handling of language, which emphasizes English more than it maybe should.
This is not a glaring problem for the film, but one worth considering while watching. Which, again, you should do, as “Isle of Dogs” remains a clever and infinitely charming adventure that acts as a perfect showcase for Anderson’s unique style of filmmaking.
It might not be Anderson’s best film, but it is one of his most accessible and maybe one of his most beautiful. There’s a lot to love here, and the beautiful landscapes, quirky characters, and exciting story make it an experience very much worth partaking in.
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