Wes Anderson’s ‘Isle of Dogs’

Wes Anderson’s second exercise in stop-motion a masterpiece

My girlfriend and I adopted our dog, Samson, a year ago this month. He’s a scruffy guy with a fairly mild temperament, but he’s got a lot of personality. He’s a terrier, so he needs to smell (and lick) everything he can to make sure he’s got a good grasp on the situation at hand at all times. As a reference for all the hardcore BLANK readers out there, you might recall seeing him on the cover of last month’s issue being held by my bosses at Loch & Key Productions. He’s really changed the way I think about human interaction across the board – canine, human or otherwise.

Samson is the first dog for which I’m fully responsible, and he’s taught me a lot about camaraderie and friendship and brought a nice end to some really long days. The whole best-friend cliché is too cheesy for me spell out, but it’s got a lot of truth to it. Because of these facts, I might be particularly biased with regard to Wes Anderson’s newest film, but I think the director’s second stop-motion endeavor, “Isle of Dogs,” is a masterpiece because it touches on this relationship with truly special and uncanny precision.

The setting for the movie is in the near-distant future in the fictional Japanese town of Megasaki, which is facing a canine crisis. In part due to a string of disease and overpopulation, but also because of a general partiality to cats, the government of Megasaki has come to the conclusion that all dogs need to go.

Exiled to a trash-disposal island north of the town, the recently feral packs of once-domesticated dogs roam the squalor, fighting for scraps of garbage dumped from the sky and randomly keeling over from a horrible illness that everyone seems to have contracted. When a pack of eclectic alpha dogs encounter a boy hell-bent on finding his beloved pup Spots, the team bands together to help him, even after discovering he is the nephew of the mayor who banished them in the first place.

Anderson is excellent at crafting stories and experiences unlike anyone else because he’s great in ways that other directors tend not to be. He rarely tackles a film’s emotions head-on like most storytellers; instead, he lingers on exploring subplots, developing side characters and even perfecting facial expressions. Anderson’s dedication to the details is apparent in the fantastic set decorations and differing personalities of his characters, and the strength of his movies lives in the cracks between scenes. Overarching storylines play second fiddle to individual human – or in the case of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Isle of Dogs,” animal – encounters and conversations that have resulted in countless quotes, line drops and Halloween costumes over the years.

Much like the wordplay behind “Isle of Dogs” itself, the storyline is a ruse for all the heart building it up. The extended sequences of searching/wayfinding featuring just the pack and the boy are what make up the meaningful core of this film. In order to drive the dialogue for English-speaking audiences, Anderson has the dogs speak in English and (most of) the human characters speak in their native Japanese, cleverly leaving the language barrier we have when communicating with our pets intact. This lets Anderson convey pity, anger, jubilation, love and everything in between with the same skillful craft it takes in real life.

Trademark wise guys like Jeff Goldblum and Bill Murray provide the dogs’ voices, which are paired with sublime animation that pays attention to every passing eye movement and furrowed brow the characters conjure. Their ability to care for a 12-year-old boy who appeared all of a sudden to them amid a devastating crisis is reciprocally indicative of the bond on which humans have come to depend on pets in order to get through the day. “Isle of Dogs” is a distillation of what it means to love something unconditionally to the point of fighting for it, and it’s another brilliant feather in Anderson’s weird and wonderful cap.

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