There are three cinematic masters in today’s reigning generation of directors, who each rarely ever fail to produce masterpiece after masterpiece. Along with Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson is one of those elite few who seem to just churn out brilliance without having to even try.
When the idiosyncratic director of Rushmore tackled stop-motion animation with 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, he found his truest calling. In the wake of his Oscar-nominated Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson has now returned to the same arena of animation and it’s a masterpiece even when stacked against his best.
In a future version of Japan, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) — who secretly comes from a long line of dog-haters and cat-worshippers — finds himself dealing with a diseased canine population.
Rather than try to find a solution to their presence and ills, Kobayashi banishes all dogs to Trash Island, a landfill in the middle of the Sea of Japan. To show his dedication to the cause, the first dog deported is that of his ward and nephew, 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin).
Atari soon builds a prop airplane and makes a rescue run for the island, crashing amidst the garbage and finding himself face to face with the five wild dogs who run the show there: Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), King (Bob Balaban), and Boss (Bill Murray).
While Chief (originally a stray) wants nothing to do with the boy, he’s outvoted by the other four (originally pets), so the canine quintet sets off on a mission to help Atari find his missing dog, Spots.
Because this is a Wes Anderson movie, there’s also a coterie of peculiar characters to populate the periphery: in this case, an oracle (Tilda Swinton), a prophet (F. Murray Abraham), a narrator (Courtney B. Vance), an interpreter (Frances McDormand), an investigative reporter in a foreign-exchange program (Greta Gerwig), and the leader of a leper colony (Harvey Keitel) — only two of whom aren’t dogs themselves.
On the one hand, Isle of Dogs looks unmistakably like a film by Wes Anderson, a man whose inimitable style is practically a subgenre unto itself. On the other, instead of centering every shot, Anderson’s now often using his symmetry with matching pairs of shots, creating a livelier picture than he usually conjures. It’s a marvellous shift in familiarity.
What’s more, the evolution between Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs is just staggering. All the maturity and gravitas Anderson brought to the table with The Grand Budapest Hotel has now created one of the most beautiful, funny, and complex animated movies of the decade.
Like all Wes Anderson movies, the acting is top-notch. His quintet of leads somehow form a perfect team, instead of fighting to be the dominant voice in the pack. Even the tertiary actors, like Ken Watanabe, Anjelica Huston, Scarlett Johansson, Liev Schreiber, and Yoko Ono, fit just right into the tapestry Anderson has woven, no one person straining for the spotlight.
Also like all Wes Anderson movies, the writing and directing is peerless. It’s astounding at times to realize what a strong track record the auteur has, to the point each of his movies is expected to be a masterpiece; the onus is now upon Anderson prior to each picture to live up to his ridiculously high bar.
But once again, he’s done it. In fact, Isle of Dogs raises not just the bar of Fantastic Mr. Fox and Anderson’s other work, but all of 2018 itself. The onus is now upon every other film over the next eight months to prove Isle of Dogs isn’t the best movie of the year — because right now, it unequivocally is.