The world is divided into two types of people: dog people and idiots... I mean, cat people. It’s a war that’s been waging as long as man and their animal companions have walked this earth. Now finally (but not really because there are quite a few movies about this) someone brave enough - someone like Wes Anderson - has addressed such a war, and he’s done it in the most delightful way possible - with talking dogs and stop motion animation. Praise be to Wes Anderson!
Set in Japan, a nation whose history is steeped in dog lovers versus cat lovers, an outbreak of Canine Flu and Snout Fever has taken hold, forcing Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’) - a cat lover - to exile the entire dog population to trash island now known as the Isle of Dogs. The first dog to be exiled is Spots (Liev Schreiber, ’Spotlight’), the Mayor’s adopted nephew Atari’s (Koyu Rankin) bodyguard dog. Stealing a plane, Atari crash-lands on trash island in search of Spots. He runs into a pack of four domesticated and one stray dog, Chief (Bryan Cranston, ‘Trumbo’, TV's 'Breaking Bad') who help the “little pilot” in his search. Meanwhile back on the mainland, a group of Pro-Dog activists led by American exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig, ‘Mistress America’) set about proving a governmental conspiracy to rid Japan of all dogs forever.
Are you intrigued yet? Yes, a Wes Anderson film can be spotted from a mile away - with care and a unique precision and eye in every frame. He may change styles, locations and themes, but a Wes Anderson film will always be a Wes Anderson film filled with his standard cast of comedic geniuses - however notably absent this time around are Ben Stiller and Luke Wilson. Never fear, he makes up for it with the inclusion of Jeff Goldblum and the aforementioned Cranston and Schreiber, among many fabulous others.
‘Isle of Dogs’ uses both English and Japanese languages, with each voice performer speaking in their native tongue without the use of subtitles, however some dialogue does get translated via Frances McDormand who plays an official government translator. This is a smart and bold move on Anderson’s part. While some may criticise, I’m choosing to praise this choice as the film’s story and characters are so strong that any subtitles would detract, distract and pander. It’s kind of like seeing a opera - you don’t really need to know exactly what they’re saying, just sit back and enjoy.
Is there a story more powerful or universal than a little boy and the bond shared with his beloved dog?
Okay, so now for why you’re really reading this review. You want me to rip into Anderson for cultural appropriation and all that other stuff. Well sorry/not sorry to disappoint, but I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to claim offence on behalf of an entire nation and culture that is not my own. It’s simply not my place. This film is full of native Japanese performers, speaking their native tongue in a film featuring their people and culture. Reading the end credits you see the same, as well as an extensive list of native technical consultants for everything from language to the film’s stunning sushi-making sequence. If there were any true objections to anything shown here, you’d hope it would have been brought up during the filmmaking and development process, which included voice actor Kunichi Nomura on both counts.
Funny, charming, dry, heartfelt and set among the rich and vast Japanese culture, upon seeing ‘Isle of Dogs’ it’s nearly impossible to imagine this film being set anywhere else. Besides, is there a story more powerful or universal than a little boy and the bond shared with his beloved dog?