Animated or otherwise, Wes Anderson films bear an unmistakable paw print. The filmmaker’s style is by now so recognizable that his lavishly manicured sets and deadpan dialogue can grate when he’s not pushing the envelope narratively. Fortunately, Isle of Dogs—the oddball odyssey of a Japanese orphan to recover his lost pet from the Neo Tokyo-adjacent Trash Island—feels fresh and forward-thinking. The format affords Anderson a second opportunity to unleash his imagination in a playground of infinite possibility, and the director charges in with mischievous glee. Like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs is quick to delight, though pushes further into territory some may find uncomfortable. Take it from gruff mutt “Chief” (Bryan Cranston) when he snarls the following two-word warning: “I bite.”
Maybe the most surprising element of Isle of Dogs is its pointed political perspective. Although production began shortly before the 2016 presidential election, the film vividly reflects the malaise of US politics today. It’s hard not to see reflections of a certain real-world villain in authoritarian antagonist Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), who campaigns on a platform of deporting all dogs. The outspoken high school students who rebel against Kobayashi’s agenda likewise invite comparison to the Parkland survivors and supporters who marched on Washington last weekend. Anchored by American exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), this group must navigate a trail of deceit, corruption, and even murder that leads all the way to the major’s office.
If that sounds like a lot to unpack in a kid’s cartoon, fear not. While Anderson indeed indulges the shadier side of this vibrant world, he counterbalances it with a surplus of heart. Isle of Dogs doesn’t have a dishonest bone in its body (or mouth); it’s an affable coming-of-age comedy about friendship and family among pets and the people who love them. The breezy tale whizzes by with inexhaustible enthusiasm and earnest curiosity, driven ever onward by the thunderous accompaniment of Japanese drums. The booming percussive score by Alexandre Desplat lends a natural sense of rhythm and gravitas to the impressively expressive animation.
Isle of Dogs is an easy recommendation on the merits of its craftsmanship alone. Even (and perhaps especially) in the era of immaculate computer generated animation, stop motion still has staying power. The painstaking photographic process demands enormous dedication, and every ounce of effort is conveyed on screen. It’s a testament to the incredible team of artists and animators working behind the scenes that Isle of Dogs feels so alive. Nearly every scene teems with ingenious visual design detail, and each concept is executed with the delicate precision of fine stagecraft—from strands of cotton that billow like steam off an uncorked beaker to a kaleidoscopic enclave constructed entirely from multicolored sake bottles.
As previously evinced by Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s sensibilities suit the medium perfectly. His is the eye of an obsessive compositionist, which in his live-action efforts can occasionally feel fussy or forced. But in a fantasy world of his own design, Anderson’s all-consuming attention to detail becomes his greatest asset. Isle of Dogs, like its fantastic predecessor, is bursting with passion, personality, and purpose. Each frame exudes a mastery of the magic of the medium and the movie explodes with thousands of tiny miracles wrung from clay by a small army of enormously talented artists.
Some things never go out of style, like chess, red wine, and—well—dogs. Wes Anderson’s latest feels similarly timeless. It’s a visual showcase with universal themes and appeal that will weather generations gracefully. Years from now, it seems destined to be discovered and cherished anew, like a best friend you never knew you had.