Wes Anderson makes the same movie again and again, just in a different format. For some filmmakers (Tim Burton), the formula has become stale and tedious. For Anderson, with his kinetic style and dry wit, it’s still fun for the time being.
“Isle of Dogs” tells the story of Atari (Koyu Rankin), a young boy and ward of Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura). After dogs are deemed a public health crisis after a string of diseases is associated with them, all dogs in Japan are shipped to a trash island far away. Atari runs away from his home, steals a plane and flies to the island to find his dog, Spots (Liev Shreiber). He befriends a group of dogs including Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), who agree to help him find Spots. Chief, the only stray of the group, is a reluctant ally and resents humans for what they’ve done, but as he grows to know Atari, his emotions change.
The film is a visual feast, with the swift camera pans accentuated by the vibrant colors and smooth animation. Anderson has always done a good job of focusing the viewer’s eye to his subject and exemplifying the film’s emotions through the actions on the screen. Whether it’s a closeup of a character’s eyes as they come to a realization or a chaotic zoom in to emphasize a shocking turn of events, he uses film composition to keep his stories interesting and heartfelt.
He also continues to display his unique wit and charm. The main characters have interesting personality quirks and story arcs and the script keeps the action going at a brisk, never-boring pace. Things move fast and the audience is rewarded for keeping up with his trademark jokes.
For Anderson though, his repetitive style is beginning to border on unoriginality. There are enough differentiations in theme and plot to keep his films interesting for the time being, but like many others before him, his movies are all starting to feel the same: dysfunctional family, long lost relatives, quirky side characters, prestige vs. instinct quarrels, blatant yet funny dialogue, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, F. Murray Abraham, Jeff Goldblum. There is a risk that he may soon seem to be parodying himself and that would demean his otherwise strong stories.
And a continuous problem with Anderson in all of his movies is his lack of female characters. Not only are they not protagonists, they are distinctly lacking everywhere onscreen. The vast majority of his characters are white males. And the women of the story serve mostly as companions or sex objects (not in an overt, callous way but in a matter-of-fact way). They are distant and detached or committed to a cause past thought of their own lives. It would be interesting for him to branch out not only in his style, but also his cast list. Many of the roles in his films could indeed be women characters, but he has trouble writing that way.
Ultimately, “Isle of Dogs” succeeds not only as another strong Anderson film that fits into his canon, but also because it mirrors current events. It’s a story about the outsider who benefits society, about government manipulation to find a common enemy to consolidate power, about abusing the environment and leaving our children messes and trash, about the importance of science and reason over preconceived biases and about our basic communication with nature, respecting and cultivating it. It’s a beautiful story that exemplifies what Anderson does best.