Even before the film starts, you already know what you’re going to get with Wes Anderson: there will be great visuals, symmetry, bright colours, deadpan performances, Bill Murray, emotionally repressed characters, dry humour. These expectations remain valid for his latest movie, a futurist stop-motion animation set in Japan which is, on paper, unlike anything Anderson has done before.
„Isle of Dogs” is the near-future story of a garbage-dump island where the canine population of Megasaki City, Japan has been banished in fear of dog flu, in a turn of events that resembles a lot of real-life, historical and current propaganda targeted at humans (I would presume this is entirely intentional). Twelve year-old Atari is the one dog lover who dares to defy the ban and go to the island to search for his friend Spots; he is helped on his quest by a group of dogs voiced by some of Wes Anderson’s regular players (including, yes, Bill Murray).
Do I even need to tell you that it all looks amazing? Not only are we dealing with Anderson and his usual flair for visuals, this is a film made of pure stop-motion magic. If you want a good argument for why we still need and love analog techniques like stop-motion, look no further: „Isle of Dogs” has a wonderfully tactile, immersive quality, and practical effects such as the cotton clouds stirred around an explosion or a fight are so charming that you feel like re-watching the movie again and again just to take it all in.
On the story side of things, the concoction is both daring at times and disappointingly formulaic at others, which is one could say is also par for the course with Wes Anderson. This is a package that includes deaths, political conspiracies, a fairly un-glamorised look at how the dogs survive as strays on a trash heap, several touching and even thoughtful moments about what it means to be loved and what it means to be free, and a stop-motion kidney transplant. But we also get some facile resolutions and some very conventional boy-meets-girl stuff (or, boy-dog-meets-girl-dog, in this case).
The most off-key note in the mix is the ‘American exchange student’ character voiced by Greta Gerwig, who sports some amazing fluffy hair but is otherwise a completely unnecessary “White Saviour” type and only serves to undermine the film’s gimmick of having the dogs and humans literally speak different languages. I guess this means the number of Greta Gerwig performances I’ve ever enjoyed will continue to be zero for the time being.
In the end, it was all just how I thought a Wes Anderson animation about dogs in Japan would turn out. Not that I’m complaining. In fact, I’d say animation suits him and his particular flavour of deadpan remoteness much better than live-action in many ways. After dogs and foxes, what stop-motion animals should be Anderson’s next heroes? Cats, perhaps?