"Isle of Dogs" Movie Review
The sushi scene. It lasts barely thirty seconds, but it is instantly one of the more memorable sequences in the entirety of writer-director Wes Anderson’s wonderful (and wonderfully imaginative) stop-motion animated feature Isle of Dogs. Though it doesn’t involve one of the titular canines, the scene reveals a major plot point and, at the same time, is a snapshot of Anderson’s deliberate, trademark style—which he has perfected over the course of his prior eight films. A white-gloved sushi chef routinely prepares a bento box, surgically slicing a (still-alive) fish, crab, and octopus. Not a single frame is wasted, and it’s as elegantly choreographed (though a bit squirmy) as anything you’ll see in the theaters this year.
That may sound odd and, in fact, raise a few eyebrows, but it’s the same with Isle of Dogs as a whole. Anyone familiar with Anderson’s oeuvre, particularly 2009’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, is well aware that the director has perhaps the most distinctive style in cinema today. To call it “quirky” undersells it substantially; Anderson has a unique eye that highlights symmetry and a muted, narrow color palette. His actors, which often overlap from film to film, give deadpan, sneaky-funny performances, and his bizarre stories are presented as though they are the most normal tales in the world.
Isle of Dogs doesn’t waver from that prescription in the least, and though it has more of a dramatic undertone that the generally light-hearted Mr. Fox, it still lands as one of Anderson’s most entertaining and delightful films, and, as a bonus, its themes of megalomaniacal rule and xenophobia (er, cynophobia) feel particularly relevant in today’s political landscape.
Twenty years in the future, we’re told, Japan is overrun by infectious dogs suffering from snout fever. To prevent spreading it further into the human population, Megasaki City Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) issues a decree banishing all canines to Trash Island, beginning with Spots (Liev Schreiber), the dog of the Mayor’s own adopted son Atari (Koyu Rankin).
Six months later, Trash Island has become a flea-ridden haven for hundreds of dogs, including a quintet of mangy canines: Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Ed Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Atari, missing his beloved Spots, steals a single-engine plane to fly to Trash Island and reunite with his pup, but he crash-lands. After pulling Atari from the wreckage, Chief and his gang hear his story and agree to help the boy look for Spots. There’s far, far more to the tale (including how the sushi ties into it all), but I’ll refrain, lest spoilers ensue.
Anderson fuses a terrifically creative plot (he was inspired after seeing a sign for London’s Isle of Dogs district and combining it with his desire to set a film in Japan) along with an all-star voice cast, rounded out by Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, and Yoko Ono. The film is a whimsical, expertly crafted gem that will no doubt please Anderson aficionados, and it may even win over a few folks who write off his work as hipster hooey; they may never look at sushi the same way again, but Isle of Dogs will certainly open their eyes to a peculiar little corner of the cinema world that is well worth a peek.