Isle of Dogs sees director Wes Anderson return to animation for the first time since 2009’s Fantastic Mr Fox, based on the Roald Dahl novel of the same name. Since Isle of Dogs is an original creation, Anderson does not have to limit himself to any kind of source material or appeal to kids. He is also on surer footing the second time round, and the result suggests that animation, more than live action, is perfectly suited to the acclaimed director’s unique sensibilities.
The story is set in the fictional Megasaki City in Japan in a quasi-dystopian future. The dictatorial leader Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nommura), has banished all dogs to a garbage dump outside the city called Trash Island, citing the prevalence of a highly contagious dog flu. Among the canines is Spot (Liev Schreiber) companion and bodyguard to Atari (Koyu Rankin), Kobayashi’s orphaned nephew. Atari’s decision to venture into the unknown to retrieve Spots forms the crux of the story.
On Trash Island, a vast array of canine characters try to chart an escape by assembling their own ragtag outfit. These are a group of former pets struggling to survive as strays: Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), King (Bob Balaban), and Chief (Bryan Cranston) who scorns his companions’ inability to be comfortable without their masters and the right brand of doggie treats.
Atari is not the only one fighting to reclaim friendship with the dogs. Back in Megasaki, foreign exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig) begins to investigate the mayor and his unsavoury activities.
Barring his debut, Bottle Rocket (1996), Anderson’s movies have always been about design rather than characters or plot. The colour palette, quirky and inventive music, and general design and symmetry of everything have always been the best part of Anderson’s films. In live action, Anderson is constrained by reality, but in animation, his imagination gets to soar. His idiosyncratic and distinctive style, which has been perfected over a three-decade career and calcified into predictability and shallowness, integrates beautifully into the narrative of Isle of Dogs.
The movie zings along at a rapid pace, and is crammed with beautiful detail and design. Although the movie misses Anderson’s trademark humour since the dialogue is in service of the plot, and the director is unable to give deeper resonance to the events befalling his characters, the film can be enjoyed on the strength of its knockout visuals alone.