Note: this was written in 2018, soon after the film came out. At the time, I was trying to get another film site off the ground. It didn’t fly, which is fine, but I thought it worthwhile to import the few reviews I’d written. Also, there are spoilers below.
Wes Anderson’s style is nothing if not distinctive. Quirky, colorful, and tongue-in-cheek, his productions are sprinkled with childlike whimsy, but are anything but childish. He makes commercials that warm your heart, pokes fun at his own work, and flawlessly executes feature-length stop-motion films, like Isle of Dogs.
As the story goes, the Japanese archipelago is overrun with trash and diseased dogs, so the latter are banished to an island made of the former. Five of these dogs—Chief, Rex, Duke, Boss, and King—form a loose democratic pack, where decisions are made by popular vote. The mayor’s nephew, Atari, steals a small plane and crash-lands on the island in search of his dog, Spots. The pack of dogs votes to assist him in his hunt, and the group strikes out for the most distant regions of the island.
In the meantime, a scientist finds a cure for the dog flu. But it turns out that the cat-loving government had infected the dog population in the first place, and poisons the scientist before he can share his discovery.
Ultimately, both humans and dogs live happily ever after, but not before enduring the hair-raising trial of the trash compactor, dangerous robo-dogs, and a landslide election.
Deadpan humor—”tooth and tail” recognition software—and subtle visual jokes—the “black box” of the plane that is both black and a box and labeled as such—abound, every one as clever as the one before it, none wearying or worthy of a groan.
Almost surprisingly, there is a distinct political undertone to the story, one that casts doubt on the motives and decisions of the ruling class and exalts the efforts of the grassroots student organization that rises up to campaign against the overwhelming incumbent favorite. In a line that seems almost more relevant to Donald Trump’s America than it does Anderson’s twenty-years-in-the-future, fictitious Japanese political landscape, the authoritarian Mayor Kobayashi remarks,
Brains have been washed . . . fears have been mongered.
But politics does not rule the story. In an industry overrun by CGI, there is a simplicity, a charming whimsy, about this medium, that almost seems to be the message.