Let me make something clear from the start. Some movies make you feel glad there are movies, and some movies make you glad you are alive. Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs makes you feel both.
In additional, let me say here that I love Wes Anderson. There is no objectivity when it comes to his films. I can discuss the strengths and weaknesses of individual films, discuss the common traits and themes of his oeuvre, but I can’t pretend that I’m not strongly drawn to his work and feel an affinity for it.
That aside, what is about Isle of Dogs that steers me to say it’s one of his best? To answer that, I have to touch upon some of his earlier films.
Anderson’s films are, if nothing else, hermetic. They exist in their own world and make no attempt to be records of actual lived events. They are the perfect postmodern artifact: Stylistically whole and reflective of not only themselves, but of Anderson’s other works, and the artists and filmmakers that have influenced him.
If he were less of an artist, if his vision and style were less mature, then there would be little to attract us to him. But ironically, despite the seeming uniformity of his style, he is one of the most inventive and creative filmmakers alive.
Isle of Dogs is a homage to both Japan and the films of Akira Kurosawa, which for many of us cineastes are synonymous. But it’s an homage from an outsider’s perspective, from a foreigner who sees the differences and explores and embraces them. The same can be said about his last film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, where he entered the world of the writings of Stefan Zweig and the fading splendor of Eastern Europe.
In a Wes Anderson film, every frame can be framed. Every frame is a well thought out composition that holds a treasure trove of witty details. It’s in the searching out and finding of these details that much of the delight lies. For instance, early on, Jupiter, the wise elder canine (F. Murray Abraham), addresses the camera and introduces the story of crooked mayor Kobayashi ’s attempt to quarantine and exile all the dogs of Megasaki City to Trash Island.
Of course, this announcement is accompanied by animated maps, a black and white photo of the mayor (who looks exactly like Kurosawa’s favorite actor, Tishiro Mifune), images of a variety of sneezing dogs with scabby noses (dog flu and snout fever), text on the screen identifying dogs, people and places, and I’m sure more that I didn’t catch on first viewing.
Oh, and by the way, Jupiter has cataracts on his left eye, and is accompanied by a pug named Oracle (Tilda Swinton) who received visions from watching television.
All of this delivered in the deadpan earnestness that so defines every line of dialogue and narration, every image and action, in every Wes Anderson film. It’s a trademark of an artist who has many trademarks.
However, it is the constant inventiveness that makes this film so enjoyable. In The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s earlier stop action animated film, he explored the possibilities of this art form, and here he shows a level of mastery that makes us forget these are puppets by taking their “puppetness” to an extreme. It’s the old Post-Modern magic trick, the same one he plies in all his films: By never letting us forget this is a film, we forget that it’s a film. Delight overcomes analysis and self-awareness. In the end, it’s damn near perfect.