There's something inherently charming about stop-motion animation, the fussy fastidiousness of each individual shot, the hours of love and craft and care that go into making even the smallest, most minute effect appear on the big screen.
"Fussy fastidiousness" is critical shorthand for the films of Wes Anderson, whose oeuvre has inspired a thousand super-cuts of shots in which his frame is perfectly centered and symmetrical. All the love and craft and care sewn into the form paid off beautifully in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, his 2009 adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic. It was a perfect meld of Anderson's various concerns (family; a narcissist convinced of his own greatness trying to find his place in the world) and aesthetic sensibility.
The Isle of Dogs feels like a stylistic leap forward, a beautifully constructed stop-motion feature filled with swooping movement and spinning camera work that occasionally made me wonder just how long each individual shot took to construct. One small detail: the camera spins around a trio of drummers, beating out a tune in time with the soundtrack. Each strike of the drum causes the skin to vibrate up and down. Just that little up-and-down motion of the throbbing drumhead must have taken precise, delicate effort to bring to life. It gives the whole thing a simulacrum of reality that is pleasing to the eye and brain alike.
Anderson's latest is set in the near future, on the island archipelago of Japan. Following an outbreak of disease, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) has banned all dogs from his prefecture, requiring they be sent to a deserted, uninhabitable garbage island. The mayor's ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin), travels to the island in order to rescue his beloved guard dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). When the boy's plane crashes, a pack adopts him, hoping to protect him and reunite him with his lost friend. Meanwhile, a foreign exchange student named Tracy (Greta Gerwig) is trying to get to the bottom of the dog-hating, cat-loving Kobayashi clan's plot to rid the world of good doggos.
I loved pretty much everything about Isle of Dogs. The voice acting is top notch; Atari's newfound friends are brought to life by Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum. Japanese actors performing in the Japanese language voice all the Japanese characters, creating a stylistic break between the world of the dogs (who speak English) and the world of men. The story is charming and heartwarming and also deeply dark; given that its themes revolve around political upheaval and genocidal extermination, Isle of Dogs may be a bit too intense for the youngest members of the potential audience.
The script, by Anderson, is fantastically Andersonian, filled with extra adjectives ("sad funeral"), the specificity of which I remain convinced are key to his slightly skewed sense of humor working time and again. The story—credited to Anderson and his frequent contributors, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, as well as Kunichi Nomura—is pleasantly complicated, though the resolution is a bit too pat. The phrase deus ex hackina appears toward the end of my notes, and it feels like the one false step the film takes.
There are undoubtedly those who will whine and kvetch about Wes Anderson making a movie set in Japan, featuring traditional Japanese things like sushi and sumo. There are always people who whine and kvetch about the variously problematic things Wes Anderson has done: his movies are either too white or too interested in foreign cultures or too uninterested in women or not interested enough in questions of class or too frequently feature mixed-race relationships.
Let the kvetchers kvetch. Without the heat of their angst the internet economy would undoubtedly collapse. The rest of us will enjoy Isle of Dogs‘ delightful tale (and tails), its intriguingly exotic-yet-familiar locale, and the undeniably Andersonian sense of twee bemusement at the state of the world.