After only a few minutes of Wes Anderson’s new stop-motion animated film, “Isle of Dogs” (2018), it’s clear how much care went into crafting the grimy, spirited and quaint world and characters of Megasaki and Trash Island. From the grander construction of detailed set pieces and complex action sequences, right down to the subtleties of facial animations and nuances in characters’ movements, “Isle of Dogs” absolutely bursts with eccentric personality and tenderness. The film’s handcrafted charm eloquently renders a love letter to man’s best friend by balancing quirky, humorous verve with a subtler, quieter poignancy. At the end of the day, Anderson’s film can convey love because it was so lovingly crafted.
“Isle of Dogs” takes place 20 years in the future, in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki. The essentially totalitarian state and its figurehead, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), decree that the city’s diseased dog population — which includes all domestic canines — is to be exiled to Trash Island, a desolate and borderline uninhabitable dumping ground off the coast of Megasaki. However, Kobayashi’s 12-year-old ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin), rebelliously hijacks a plane and flies it to Trash Island to search for his beloved dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). There, Atari befriends a pack of five dogs who have been struggling to survive since their exile — Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), who help Atari cross the bleak landscape of Trash Island in search of Spots. Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), an American exchange student and plucky reporter at her high school’s newspaper, investigates the government corruption that led to the dogs’ expulsion from the city.
According to a series of featurettes detailing the process of creating “Isle of Dogs,” every one of the nearly 900 characters is a handcrafted wireframe puppet, filmed in stop-motion on a miniature set. Human characters have individual mouth replacements for each phonetic sound, and dogs can be maneuvered to open their mouths and move their joints and faces appropriately. This process only further emphasizes how much work and attention to detail went into “Isle of Dogs.” The film capitalizes on this handcrafted charm — the dogs of Trash Island are covered in real fur that’s matted and tangled from their hardened survival, explosions and smoke are made up of clumps and spindles of fibers and clothing drapes as though it were a costume on a full-size model. This technique means that the film maintains its lavish textures while still allowing elements to feel representative and stylized, drawing the audience in to a rich, detailed world that feels enchanting and playful at the same time.
If you’ve ever seen a Wes Anderson film before, you’ll be familiar with his idiosyncratic aesthetics and storytelling. Color and lighting play a heavy role in defining mood and space; each scene feels entirely its own based on its visual distinctiveness. The tone is subdued at times and quite theatrical at others, yet its pacing remains pleasantly even-tempered and ruminative. This characteristic is due in large part to its particularly grounded voice acting, as the seasoned cast allows characters to speak with more subtlety and understated nuance. And when the film decides to be funny, its dry humor is spot-on.
One noteworthy aspect of “Isle of Dogs” is that it doesn’t provide any subtitles for Japanese voice acting — and Japanese human characters speak a lot. They’ll often be translated via a plot device such as an interpreter, but there are several scenes where human characters make long declarations in Japanese, and it’s up to the audience to interpret their message based on inflection and body language. While it initially appears to hinder understanding, this omission actually underlines the movie’s message of the bond between humans and their dogs — the dogs, just like the audience, can’t understand what their masters might be saying, but it doesn’t diminish the emotional attachment between the two.
Despite some of this ambiguity, however, “Isle of Dogs” remains a carefully crafted story full of sumptuous detail and emotional tenderness. It’s mature at times and hilariously juvenile at others, making it feel both poignant and whimsical all at once.