I always appreciated Wes Anderson instead of kissing the ground he walks on, the way other fellow film buffs and critics pretty much dictate I do. As much as I find his brand of French New Wave-light whimsy laid atop a Kubrickian-level anal attention to detail in framing and color palette to be affable, I've always been kept at an emotional distance due to his insistence on having the audience take his characters and stories too seriously while adopting an abrasively artificial aesthetic. Here's a filmmaker who was born to make cartoons for adults, and he finally delivers on that promise with the delectable, gorgeous, poignant, and thoroughly entertaining Isle of Dogs, a Disney-style adventure of literal underdogs fighting against an oppressive system, told through the lens of an auteur with an unrelentingly unlimited imagination.
Yes, he's been around the stop-motion block before with The Fantastic Mr. Fox, but that was still a fairly typical Wes Anderson movie that happened to be animated. Isle of Dogs has the aesthetic, the pacing, and fun of a feature-length cartoon that also happens to be a deft satire on state-sanctioned discrimination. It's near-future Japan, and dogs have been outlawed because of a mysterious disease they're thought to carry. The real reason for this might be because of a long-standing rivalry between clans who are cat people and ones who are dog people, and the cat people clan is now in power, so that's immediate bad news for man's best friend.
Even the cruel, dog hating mayor's son Atari's (Koyu Rankin) loyal protector Spots (Live Schreiber) isn't safe, as he's sent to a trash island, one of those cartoon locations where desolation and dirt provides its charm, where all dogs are kept in isolation. Determined to get his dog back, Atari decides to infiltrate trash island, and with the help of a gang of strays led by the grumpy individualist Chief (Brian Cranston), he sets out to find him. The arc between Atari and Chief during their journey is predictable if you've seen any Disney movies about animals that refuse to trust humans: Of course Chief eventually warms up to Atari. But it's the beautifully natural chemistry between the characters that keep us hooked.
Isle of Dogs is chock full of endlessly creative production design that melds the traditional and futuristic Japanese style with Anderson's signature symmetry-based visuals. Every background, prop, every strand of hair on the canine characters comes to life and makes us fall in love with every frame. As much as I adored the characters and the mix of Anderson's self-aware whimsy and a go-for-broke cartoon realism that the tone is going for, a sub-plot involving an American foreign exchange student voiced by Greta Gerwig halts the film's terrific pacing every time it appears.
Isle of Dogs was met with a lot of accusation regarding cultural appropriation, which I mostly think is unfounded, since this is a film that's also a deeply respectful throwback to classic Japanese cinema (No wonder two tunes from Kurosawa's filmography shows up here). But the idea of the only western character being brave enough to challenge the Japanese status quo is a bit icky. Also, the character is gratingly annoying.
It's a given that Criterion will one day release their own disc, but I can't see how this terrific A/V presentation will be topped. The color palette is gorgeous, the video is crisp and clear enough to see every strand of hair and every tiny bit of animation. This is as perfect as it gets.
The DTS-HD 5.1 track compliments the wonderful video transfer with a dynamic surround transfer that really comes to life when the percussion score kicks in, and provides wonderfully detailed ambiance during quiet scenes.
Promotional Featurettes: Here's where Criterion can have the upper hand. The extras are solely missing in depth, especially for a movie where extensive behind-the-scenes footage would be a big plus. We just get a handful of 2-3 minute promotional clips briefly mentioning various parts of the production.
We also get a Trailer and a Still Gallery.
Take out every scene with the American character and Isle of Dogs is an enduring masterpiece. As it is, it's still Anderson's crowning achievement and easily one of the most creative, fun, engaging, and all together an expertly-executed and wholly original pieces you'll see all year.