Review: Wes Anderson and his insane cast get political on 'Isle of Dogs'

Bryan Cranston provides the voice of Chief.

Bryan Cranston provides the voice of Chief. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Wes Anderson goes political with an insane cast ensemble

When Wes Anderson first took on stop-motion puppet animation, it felt like a bit of a curveball. This is a director whose career has been predicated on the weird beats of very personal, very human dynamics. And yet somehow 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox turned out to be not only a deep study of humanity, but one of Anderson’s best movies.

So there’s been no small amount of hype surrounding his latest stop-motion feature, Isle of Dogs. While it doesn’t quite reach the level of Fantastic Mr. Fox, it’s a fantastic movie in its own right.

First off, this is front-to-back, trademark Anderson. If you’re not into his standard idiosyncrasies, Isle of Dogs is definitely not for you. But for Anderson fans (Fandersons, as they should henceforth be called), the director’s ninth feature is another twee treat.

Isle of Dogs takes place 20 years in the future, when a dog flu epidemic overtakes the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki. After briefly debating solutions, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura, co-credited on story) decrees all canines exiled to Trash Island, starting with Spots Kobayashi (Liev Schreiber), guard dog of the mayor’s nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin).

Atari isn’t having it. The young boy flies to Trash Island in search of Spots, but a crash landing near the coast sidetracks him. Atari meets a pack of friendly pooches who vote—because dogs vote in Wes Anderson movies—to help him in his quest. The only holdout is Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray wary of humankind.

What initially feels like a simple story becomes increasingly complex, as Chief comes to terms with his past and nefarious dealings slowly come to light. Anderson’s work often feels like it takes place within its own isolated bubble, but Isle of Dogs sets itself apart as the first of his films that feels overtly political. In times like these, it’s hard not to be. And though Anderson’s intent is unmistakable, he executes with a sly touch.

Of course, the director is only part of this equation. It’s his insane ensemble cast that really brings things to life. Cranston stands out as the lead, but every cast member—recent Oscar winner Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Jeff Goldblum, Yoko Ono, and many more big hitters—pulls their weight.

Add some eye-catching, hyper-detailed visuals and an immersive score by Alexandre Desplat, and Isle of Dogs ends up being the kind of movie that really does transport you to another world.

There has been some criticism of Anderson’s Japanese backdrop, though much of this came before said critics actually saw the movie. If you ascribe to the belief system that white Americans should never touch non-white culture, then you’re definitely going to have issues on principle alone. For what it’s worth, Anderson seems to have put a lot of thought into his approach, and his end product is both respectful and cinematically inventive.

Every filmmaker working today owes something to Akira Kurosawa—and it’s clear that Anderson’s exploration of Japanese culture is a gracious homage. One imagines the late director proud.

Isle of Dogs
Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray
Rated: PG-13
Theater: Uptown Theatre, now showing