Production Design: A-
Isle of Dogs is only Wes Anderson's second foray into stop-motion animation, but he turns out to be uniquely suited to the form. Plenty of his live-action films seem like they might as well be animated, with their static shots of stunningly detailed, colorful tableaus. This gives a strangely static tone to many of his films, as though the characters live in a world just off from the real one.
That's not so much of an issue with animation, as was the case with Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). What makes Isle of Dogs the superior of the two films is a sentimentality that's missing from many of Anderson's other films. Rather than being witty and clever just for its own sake, this film gets to the heart of the bond between people and their pets. And rather than being multiple species who all wear clothes, these are dogs who actually act more like dogs than people -- sure, they talk, but it's still more realistic and thus more relatable.
The plot is surprisingly complex, set in Japan twenty years in the future, a corrupt mayor declaring all the dogs in the city of Megasaki infected by a canine virus a public menace and exiling them on the island of the title. The first of these dogs is one named Spots, his master being the mayor's distant nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), whose parents died in a terrible bullet train accident. Months after all the dogs have been exiled, Atari flies a small plane to the island in search of Spots, and a group of dirty alpha dogs helps him search for him.
To be honest, fun as it looked, the trailer for Isle of Dogs gave me slight pause. The voice cast features a couple dozen famous talents, most of them American. How was Wes Anderson going to handle this, having the story set in Japan? This seemed potentially problematic. In the end, he comes up with some clever devices, while retaining several Japanese actors actually delivering lines in their own native language -- in fact, Atari has many lines, and Koyu Rankin delivers nearly all of them in Japanese.
Many of the Japanese lines are delivered neither with subtitles or translations; no such efforts are made when it makes no difference to understanding the story. That said, very occasionally, subtitles are used. Most of the many television news reports featured are handled by a character who is herself an interpreter, played by Frances McDormand. So what of audiences who actually speak Japanese, then? This film is clearly made for American audiences first and foremost, which alone makes the use of Japan as basically a complex prop itself problematic, but as someone fluent only in English, I cannot speak for such people. You might do well to read this Vulture piece featuring the perspectives of several Japanese speakers, a fascinating read indeed, on the whole pretty positive in response to the movie but also offering many totally fair criticisms.
Really, Isle of Dogs could just have easily been set in any American city in the future, without using Japanese language and styles as a gimmick -- or perhaps it even still could, if set largely in a given city's International District, using, say, the bilingual child of Japanese immigrants. I mean, I quite enjoyed it all, to be honest. But it must be acknowledged that I speak from the perspective of a white guy with limited understanding of Japanese culture.
Now, dogs -- that's a different story, even though -- confession time! -- I am much more of a cat person, and would be delighted by a film of this sort featuring cats as the main characters. As it happens, cats do feature in this story, just none of them being given any lines. They don't talk. They are just grumpy looking props for all the villainous city leaders attempting to eradicate all dogs. To be fair, even as props the cats are put to good use and are nearly always amusing in their own right.
But the essence of Isle of Dogs gets down to my favorite exchange of dialogue in the movie: Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) asks Chief (Bryan Cranston), "Will you help him then, the little pilot?" When Chief responds, "Why should I?", Nutmeg replies, "Because he's a twelve-year-old boy. Dogs love those." All the dogs speak English, by the way; the opening titles offer the explanation that "all barks" are translated. In any case, it's this kind of sentiment that informs the story, and makes it likely that any dog-loving twelve-year-old would likely love this movie. Ironically, the film is rated PG-13 due mostly to some surprisingly graphic elements, such as the somewhat striking scene depicting a complete human liver transplant. (It makes sense when you watch the movie.)
Honestly, if there's any element of Isle of Dogs not deserving of praise, it's the persistently stoic delivery of the voice acting, typical of all Wes Anderson movies. Actor performances are never his strong suit, even with such an incredible roster of voice talent, here including Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum as the rest of the alpha dogs; Liev Schreiber as Spots; Harvey Keitel as Gondo, the leader of dogs from the island's pre-existing animal testing facility knocked out by natural disasters; F. Murray Abraham as Jupiter, the island's most-respected elder statesman dog; Tilda Swinton as Oracle, Jupiter's prophetic sidekick (the subject of a great running gag); Yoko Ono as one of the city's assistant scientists; Ken Watanabe as the Head Surgeon; and Greta Gerwig as the arguably unnecessary foreign exchange student who is American and therefore provides a lot of context via her lines delivered in English. It's fun to recognize all these people's voices, for sure (and especially the "Y" and the "O" tied around the assistant scientist's braids), but to a person, the delivery is the same: nearly always soft-spoken; almost monotone; just short of wooden. Possibly the one exception is Jeff Goldblum, who is incapable of speaking in anything but his specific Goldblum voice.
It's the animation that gives them all personality, and this movie's incredible animation must be acknowledged. This part is indeed on the same level as Fantastic Mr. Fox, with an attention to detail that is truly a sight to behold, itself reason alone to see the film, particularly on the big screen. Combined with cinematography made all the more impressive when it's stop-motion, production design on the level of excellence all Wes Anderson films are known for, and the nearly universal relatability of kids who love their dogs unconditionally, Ilse of Dogs (say that out loud) transcends all the reasons it gives to nitpick. Most people watching aren't going to bother with the nitpicking, and will easily surrender to its ample charms.