Throw any storytelling restrictions out the window, and you’ll find animation is a terrific medium to tell your story. Its surreal nature and visually malleable frames give creators a broader scope in the narrative of their movies. Unfortunately, while animation has evolved both technologically and as a device, films aimed at adults aren’t as popular—even today, it’s easier to dismiss it as a stylistic device meant only for kids. It’s why movies like Charlie Kaufman’s “Anomalisa” (2015), Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life” (2001) or even Hayao Miyazaki’s tragic biopic-romance “The Wind Rises” (2014) aren’t as popular as the equally competent “Kung Fu Panda” or “Toy Story” franchises. Here is where Wes Anderson comes in with “Isle of Dogs.”
Anderson is known for his creation and absurdist interpretation of dysfunctional, often wildly objectivist character arcs, and his latest is no different. Kobayashi and his straight-outta-Transylvania assistant work toward self-preservation and power, the dogs toward survival, and the kid—Atari, of all names—toward the love for his pet-but-also-guard dog. Like with the much-loved format of anime, the film is divided into chapters that attempt to form a more omniscient narrative overall and for a good reason.
Omniscient storytelling is tricky; writers and directors usually stumble around, causing a severe disconnect between their creations and their respective audiences. However, with “Isle of Dogs,” each perspective makes a compelling case for why everyone is the way they are. Every protagonist—and antagonist—has a reason (however silly, but considering the film’s unusual nature, let’s just go with it) for their traits. From Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura; “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” 2014) to foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig; “Maggie’s Plan,” 2016), viewers see everybody’s motives neatly laid out but without the eventual complacency.
The film’s most tremendous success, however, comes from its somewhat bizarre narrative style—the people from Japan speak fluid Japanese, which, hilariously enough, is sans subtitles. Instead, what Anderson presents to its viewers are primarily visual cues combined with the (appropriate) use of professional translators and futuristic electronic devices for crucial moments. Frances McDormand (HBO miniseries “Olive Kitteridge,” 2014) as interpreter Nelson is incredible, with her exasperated expressions constantly betraying the deadpan vocal nature of her English translations. That’s not all, though.
“Isle of Dogs” is self-aware of its use of the tried and tested tropes of non-linear storytelling—the subtle shade its makers throw on flashbacks as a plot device is gold, especially as Anderson and co-writer Jason Schwartzman don’t resort to laziness just because they crack a joke. Of course, there are also some (read: many) incredible meta-nuggets: scientist Watanabe’s assistant Yoko Ono is played by—you guessed it—Yoko Ono, angry-activist Tracy Walker is the sneakiest parody of the white-savior complex in Hollywood, Kobayashi’s conscientious (he’ll hear the voice of dissent before he gets back to the metaphorical mustache-twirl) antagonist, and the title in itself—a camouflaged pun that’s as masterful as it is cheeky.
An argument can be made against “Isle of Dogs“ and its appropriation of Japanese culture. But here’s a counterpoint: Anderson has always envisioned outrageous alternate universes—From the exasperatingly obnoxious frenemy duo in “Rushmore” (1998) to the fascinating clueless-white-people-in-India commentary via “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007)—regardless of the countries in which he’s based his films or which have inspired him.
The USP of Wes Anderson’s films is to turn even the most tried-and-tested indie narrative tropes into a borderline-absurdist adventure. “Isle of Dogs” feels right at home with the rest of his work, which may or may not be your cup of tea. But you’ll never know if you didn’t watch the movie at all, will you?