‘Isle of Dogs’ brilliantly brings stop-motion to the silver screen
“A long rickety causeway over a noxious sludge marsh, leading to a radioactive landfill polluted by toxic chemical garbage, that’s our destination,” Rex says, describing the journey that the main characters of “Isle of Dogs” must take. The visual language of Wes Anderson’s latest film is matched by an illuminating story, stunning visuals and cutting music.
Set in Japan, “Isle of Dogs” has generated a larger conversation on the subject of cultural appropriation versus appreciation and, as a white American, my opinion on this topic is not relevant and therefore will not be included.
“Isle of Dogs” follows a pack of five dogs after Mayor Kobayashi of the fictional Megasaki City in a near-future Japan exiles all dogs of Megasaki to Trash Island. The mayor’s ward, Atari Kobayashi, ends up flying to Trash Island to find his own dog, best friend and bodyguard, Spots. The pack of dogs agree to help Atari with his search, despite grumblings from one of the dogs, Rex.
The film explores interesting dynamics between the dogs and Atari. Rex, a stray, never had a master and is far more hostile toward Atari than his compatriots. The pack, however, votes to help Atari as he is the only human that has dared to find his lost dog. Rex, after a run-in with an old show dog Nutmeg, begrudgingly agrees to help Atari, because, as she puts it, “he’s a 12 year old boy; dogs love those.”
Above all else, “Isle of Dogs” is a love story. It’s not a boy-meets-girl, boy-meets-boy, girl-meets-girl or even a girl-meets-fish love story—“Isle of Dogs” is a love story about companionship. While romantic love exists within the film, it takes the backseat to the love of a boy and his dog.
The moving force behind the film is Atari’s love for Spots. In a flashback, we see Atari wake up in a hospital to the news that his parents died, that he has been adopted by his distant uncle (Mayor Kobayashi) and that he would have Spots assigned to him as a guard dog. In the moment Atari meets Spots there is an instant spark of friendship. Atari has no one but Spots and Spots has no one but Atari.
This friendship drives Atari to steal a small plane and fly to the desolate island. This friendship pushes Atari to seek out Spots and wander Trash Island. The story of “Isle of Dogs” is the story of a boy and his dog.
It’s this pure connection that really makes “Isle of Dogs” a Wes Anderson movie. Anderson has a penchant for focusing on the connection of love more than in the traditional romantic sense. His films show the intimacy between figures that transcends the love portrayed in grand romances. With Atari and Spots, there is a pure connection that is so much more than just “falling” for each other.
This sentiment is captured quite well in the song “I Won’t Hurt You” by The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. The song is soft and sweet, musing about dedication and tenderness. The song is a beautiful choice on Anderson’s part. It, like the rest of the music in the movie, accents the action and enhances the experience of the viewer. The music, like the movie itself, is inspired by Japanese culture. Most of the movie is set to instrumentals which feature strong, pounding drums pierced by whistling flutes. The drums and flutes seem to reflect the visuals of the film. Heavier moments are scored with deep drums with sharp whistles, while lighter moments have a more bouncing percussion and wind to them.
Along with beautiful music comes gorgeous visuals. As with all of Anderson’s films, “Isle of Dogs” is a visual masterpiece: Somehow Trash Island looked stunning. As with “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Anderson’s previous stop-motion film, the figures are incredibly detailed, and the sets are beautiful. The attention to detail in the visuals of the film is astounding and every minute thing feels deliberate. Stop-motion requires infinite patience on the part of the people making the movie, and that patience paid off in the aesthetics of the film.
Altogether, “Isle of Dogs” is an artistic masterpiece. The elements of the film blend together in a perfectly Andersonian way to make one of his best films. The emotions are high, the script is well-written and the visuals and audio weave together perfectly. Wes Anderson has come back to stop-motion in a big way.