It can be a bit of a moot point reviewing a Wes Anderson film in 2018. While the stories may be different, the feel is largely the same. As a result, you generally know what you are getting into. Isle of Dogs has that signature feel to it, and that feel will probably keep it from being a huge hit with the masses, despite the story having the most crossover potential of anything he has done lately. Not that that is a bad thing, it just is what it is. By now, you like Wes Anderson or you don’t. Isle of Dogs may not change that, but it does have the potential to be the gateway drug into his world.
The Japanese city of Megasaki has a canine problem. Snout fever has become a plague amongst man’s best friend and the human population is at a loss as to what to do. That is until mayor (and cat lover) Kobayshi proposes a plan to ship all of the dogs off to Trash Island, where they can live out the rest of their lives quarantined away from the human population. To show how serious he is, he sends Spots, the pet of his ward Atari, as the first sacrifice. Heartbroken that his companion has been sent off to die, Atari commandeers a small plane and heads off to find his pet. Crashing on the island, he meets a ragtag group of dogs (voiced by the Anderson All StarsTM) and our real adventure begins.
Tonally, Isle of Dogs lands in a weird place in Anderson’s filmography. While this is only his second full length animated feature, the art style, framing, and dialogue are all very Anderson. His first, Fantastic Mr. Fox, was definitely a family film. But despite this being animated and about dogs, two things that would scream “see it” to parents looking to shut up their kids for a few hours, this is not really a family affair. Throwing all the abstract Anderson stuff aside, Isle of Dogs has some very meaty themes, not the least of which is the central concept of sending a bunch of sick pets off to die. Taken at face value or as a metaphor, that’s some heavy shit to explain to child. It is effective though. I found myself getting choked up on more than one occasion because of the trials these (animated, celebrity voiced) dogs go through.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. There are numerous funny and heartfelt moments that take you out of the misery of the world, if only for a moment. The fantastic art style sets the mood perfectly, the surrealist aspects make the more somber moments more palatable. Like most of Anderson’s films, the style is striking and memorable.
Isle of Dogs is a Wes Anderson film through and through. While in my mind he is still getting better at perfecting what he does, there aren’t many risks taken here. Any expectations you will have of this based on his previous work are probably pretty spot on. This film won’t change the mind of many non believers, but if you are on the fence about his body of work, Isle of Dogs may start you down a path of Wes Anderson understanding.