When I first saw the trailer for this movie, I thought, "Hmmm. This is a strange looking film." First, it was a stop motion animation, which seems to be getting less and less popular nowadays with the advent of computer animated films. Second, the preview didn't really say much about the story line. However, given that I have always been a buff of Japanese culture and the preview played up the film's Japanese angle (including Japanese words in the title), I became interested in seeing it.
The story is set in a futuristic yet dystopian version of Japan. There has been an outbreak of diseases among canines. And with growing fear of the diseases spreading to humans, the mayor of Megasaki City decrees that all dogs are to be banished to Trash Island. (Interesting how futuristic society has not advanced in the problem of trash management.) To demonstrate his belief in the initiative, the mayor starts by banishing his own household canine, Spot, to Trash Island. But unbeknownst to him at the time, his ward, Atari, will embark on a journey to Trash Island (i.e., Isle of Dogs) on an adventure to rescue Spot. Along the way, loyalty, friendship, and family are all tested as a world of corruption is revealed.
Although the studio didn't market this aspect of the film, it features an all-star cast, including Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, and Scarlett Johansson. But perhaps more importantly, it was directed by Wes Anderson. Anderson is a multi-time Academy Award nominee and Golden Globe winner. He is known for his non-traditional style of story telling, which is evident in his films such as The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. And lucky for us, The Isle of Dogs is no exception.
Personally, I am not a big fan of stop motion animation. Yet, the more of the film I watched, the more captivated I was by it. It is very hard to put into words what the appeal of this movie is for me. The story is sweet and definitely amusing at times, but there is more to it than that. Somehow, a large part of the appeal came from HOW the story was told. The use of both English and Japanese, the purposely deadpan portrayals of some of the characters, and the implications on how a dog may think all come together very nicely.
Speaking of utilizing both English and Japanese, this is one of the most clever facets of the film. This movie was obviously made for an English speaking audience, so it would probably be more appealing to that audience if the characters spoke English as well. But given its setting in Japan, it would make more sense for the characters to be speaking Japanese. So which is the best way to go? Many films in similar situations may simply have the characters speak English regardless or make up a reason for them to be speaking English into the plot line. But in the case of Isle of Dogs, both languages were brilliantly incorporated by making use of the fact that humans and dogs speak different languages. More specifically, "dog speak" is represented by English, and "human speak" is represented by Japanese. Furthermore, the film also includes a foreign exchange student from America and English newscasters translating for Japanese government officials so that key plot points in the movie are also expressed in English.
On the negative side, parts of the plot and some of the animation were a little silly. For example, the fight scenes in the movie were animated as a dust cloud, the kind you see in old Saturday morning cartoons. But this is a very minor ding against an overall very worthwhile film. In fact, it may have even given the film a bit of the absurdity it needed to keep it generally lighthearted.
I did not expect to like Isle of Dogs as much as I did. It seemed interesting from its trailers, but I figured it would be the type of film that I would forget about a couple of months later. However, thanks to the ingenious way the story was told, I was pleasantly surprised. This movie is probably not the kind of film that is on most people's lists of favorite movies, but it is a sweet and beautifully made movie which I definitely recommend.