Isle of Dogs, 2018.
Directed by Wes Anderson
Featuring the voice talents of Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Kunichi Nomura, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDorman, Live Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, and F. Murray Abraham.
Wes Anderson is a modern day auteur who keeps cranking out movies for a loyal audience. He may never have a box office home run, but he’ll keep hitting doubles and triples. His latest effort is Isle of Dogs, which is available now on Blu-ray. The bonus features are scant, but he and Criterion are BFFs, so something more substantial is probably on the horizon.
I’d love to see Wes Anderson do more stop-motion animated films, since it’s a format well-suited to the world-building he does with every movie. Isle of Dogs is his second such film, after 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, and it builds on its predecessor with more intricate sets, some of which are seen only for a few seconds, and a larger cast of characters. Like all of Anderson’s films, Isle of Dogs features his sly sense of humor.
Also like many of his movies, it’s not clear when Isle of Dogs is set, only that it takes place in a near-future Japan where an outbreak of canine flu has led the dictatorial Mayor Kobayashi of Megasaki City to send all dogs to Trash Island. His orphaned nephew, Atari, is among those whose pets are banned, and the boy steals a plane and flies to the island to find his dog, Spots.
Atari crashes the plane and is injured. He meets a pack of dogs who help him find Spots, although their leader, Chief, is a former stray who’s wary of humans. The rest of the dogs came from homes, though, so they’re happy to assist in the hope that they’ll be able to go back to their owners too.
Meanwhile in Megasaki City, Professor Watanabe searches for a cure for canine flu but Kobayashi seeks to thwart his efforts because the mayor is really more of a cat person. An American exchange student named Tracy follows the news of Watanabe’s efforts and senses a conspiracy in the making, so she investigates. When Kobayaski learns where Atari is, he begins plans to destroy all the dogs on Trash Island by sending his men, accompanied by a pack of robot dogs, to do his dirty work.
The cast consists of many Anderson regulars, including Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, and Bob Balaban. (There are others, but I won’t list them all.) Bryan Cranston makes his Anderson film debut as Chief – it’s nice to see him continue the career boost that Breaking Bad gave him. If I have any quibble with the voice work it’s that it’s really obvious who’s who. I like it when well-known actors change their voices a bit to blend into the story, like Jennifer Aniston did in The Iron Giant. That’s not a deal-breaker for me, though.
As someone who’s been interested in Japanese culture for most of my life, I enjoyed the setting of Isle of Dogs, as well as the way Anderson handled the characters without resorting to stereotypes. I’ve read some comments where people feel that he just slung together the country’s greatest hits, including sumo wrestling, cherry blossoms, anime, and taiko drummers, but I can’t really find fault with that. After all, many movies set in the US include recognizable elements of American culture, and the same could be said for many countries.
I found the movie a reverence for Japanese culture, particularly with Anderson’s decision not to sub-title some of the Japanese dialogue. We only know what’s being said if the scene includes a translator – presumably because, for example, when Kobayaski is making an announcement, it’s being translated into English for worldwide broadcast. We’re left to interpret visual cues to understand what a character is saying. Perhaps putting that kind of work in the hands of the audience is what led to the film playing at small art house cinemas like the one where I saw it.
This Blu-ray release also includes the movie on DVD, along with a code for a digital copy. The bonus features are scant, but perhaps that’s because a Criterion edition will be out eventually. The included featurettes run about 21 minutes total and include:
- Animators (4 minutes): A look at the labor-intensive work that went into breathing life into the stop-motion puppets.
- Isle of Dogs Cast Interviews (5 minutes): The cast voice their characters talking about their roles in the film, as well as other random subjects.
- Puppets (4 minutes): An examination of the work that went into building the puppets, which included over a million pieces of hair.
- An Ode to Dogs (2 minutes): Unsurprisingly, there were a bunch of dogs hanging around while the movie was made, including a couple whose movements were examined by the animators.
- Megasaki City and Trash Island (3 minutes): A look at the sets built for the film. I love the work that set builders do, whether for live-action or for animated films.
- Weather and Elements (3 minutes): It’s not hard to guess that, for example, the clouds that emanate during fights are made from cotton balls. Here’s how that was done, along with the various items like Atari’s plane.
There’s also a gallery of behind-the-scenes photos that pass by for a minute, along with the theatrical trailer.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★