For those well versed in his work, watching a Wes Anderson film feels more and more like déjà vu with each new outing. Sure, he repeats himself in his highly composed shots, title cards, matter-of-fact dialogue, pretentious characters, and the company of actors who portray them, but that feeling of déjà vu goes beyond these superficial aspects. It’s that feeling of familiarity combined with being unable to predict what comes next that creates a sense similar to that mental phenomenon. Just when you think he’s gotten too formulaic in his approach (Moonrise Kingdom bordered on self parody), he comes out with something as grand as The Grand Budapest Hotel. Now we’re getting his second foray into stop motion animation with Isle of Dogs. Following in the paw prints of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson has once again created something that feels familiar while also being completely bizarre, occasionally irreverent, and always fun.
A tidy prologue sets the scene in a near future Japan where a dog flu has prompted the government to exile all dogs to an island made of garbage. Depending on their level of domestication, some adapt better than others. Stray dog “Chief” (Brian Cranston) becomes a natural leader in this this new civilization that gets interrupted by a young boy who finds his way to the island in search of his beloved pet. Other canines are voiced by Anderson’s ever growing roster of thespians including Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeff Goldblum, with Frances McDormand and Greta Gerwig voicing a couple of the two-legged characters.
Like The Fantastic Mr. Fox before it, Isle of Dogs is a cute and fun adventure suitable for all ages, but aimed more at adults. Overall, Fox is the better film, mostly owing to the strong source material by Roald Dahl, and feeling fresher by simple virtue of being first. That being said, Isle of Dogs still has some new tricks and plenty of charm. Anderson revels in the Eastern setting, borrowing music from Akira Kurosawa films and finding inventive and fun ways to translate the dialogue. The film is worth seeing in the theatres for the opening credits scene alone which features some very loud and very exciting Japanese drums.
In the same way Christopher Nolan’s twisty narratives make mainstreams audiences feel smart, Anderson’s offbeat sensibilities have the ability make audiences feel like they’re seeing something a little more artsy than the normal fare. But if you strip away the set dressing, his films are essentially just bittersweet comedies about broken families. They’re so formal in their approach that it’s easy to forget how often they make us laugh and how silly it all is. In this sense, he truly stands alone in the genre. Mel Brooks and Woody Allen may have recognizable traits in their writing, but you rarely hear people talk about consistencies in their aesthetic style the way Anderson’s films aggressively draw attention to.
It’s those Anderson-esque tropes (breaking the fourth wall, formal compositions, slow motion shots, folk-rock soundtrack, etc.) that make him easy to spoof and have inspired lesser filmmakers to attempt to replicate his style, but he still remains ahead of the pack. Even with stop motion being in his book of tricks for almost a decade now (longer if you count a few shots in The Life Aquatic), Isle of Dogs could have only come from Anderson’s mind. Not because of how it looks, but because of the script which draws influences from all over, and also happens to be the first screenplay Anderson has received sole credit on (although he shares story credits with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura).
So while Anderson’s films may all feel visually similar, even when set in an entirely handmade world like Isle of Dogs, it’s his stories and sense of humour that continue to surprise us. They may not always feel fresh or completely original, but they continue to make us laugh and engage us, which is as much as any of us can ask for. His filmography is a uniquely uniform one, with an easily traceable evolution and consistency, making it easy to see why some write him off as a one trick pony, but less cynical viewers find this familiarity comforting.
Even if you’re one of those who had given up on him after the seemingly left-handed Moonrise Kingdom (like I almost did), I recommend you revisit him with Isle of Dogs, a film that continuous his harmonious marriage of formalism and silliness.