Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” is beautifully animated with the rich details, colors, and storylines one has come to expect from an Anderson film. It was also a refreshing break from many of the trending movies and TV shows out today – tales of bloodbaths and murders, generally sinister dystopian tales with a failed love triangle and a predictable plotline of technological destruction and manipulation. While Anderson does employ some of these themes in his second animated film, ultimately, his signature light-hearted humor and nostalgic lens on what it means to be a family wins over the heart.
“Isle of Dogs” takes place in the desolate Japanese prefecture of Megasaki City 20 years in the future, and the majority of the population is affected by a dog flu, which prompts the incumbent Mayor Watanabe to ban all dogs to a “trash island” off the coast of the city. But the mayor has ulterior motives, revealed by a student media team headed by a foreign exchange student. Meanwhile, Mayor Watanabe’s ward and nephew, Atari Kubayashi, flies to what is now known as “Dog Island” to retrieve his lost dog, Spots. With the help of a fierce band of alpha dogs, Atari embarks on a journey that will change the prefecture forever, and gain Atari a new family.
The colors and the mood of this film are much darker than previous Anderson films, especially compared to “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which was bathed in humorous yellows and golds, and the occasional industrial grey. “Isle of Dogs” is built on black, white, brown and deep reds, which were occasionally backlit by something more lighthearted. The symbolism behind color is never lost on Anderson, who uses brighter colors like yellows and blues only when referencing the student journalists and their quirky little publishing room, where their business of “proving the conspiracy theories” about their semi-dictatorial mayor’s real reasons for dislocating the dogs takes place. The fact that the newsroom is one of the only bright spots in the film suggests that it is the light missing from this bleak and diseased prefecture.
Anderson uses this plotline to make some refreshing commentary on the steady decline of togetherness and the increasingly troubling deception clouding modern consumption of media, and an increasingly capitalistic and self-centered society unknowingly compartmentalized into cages and trapped like the dogs they exile. Much of the film includes media clips from the mainland, watched by Atari and the dogs. One scene in particular shows the scientist who created a dog flu antidote poisoned, his death framed by the media to look like a suicide, and in the next shot, his lab is closed down, and the antidote prevented, by government orders, from being produced, although, one sees the mayor standing at the podium, a Citizen Kane-esque Kobayashi banner hanging behind him, constantly proclaiming he will end the dog flu. One can almost feel Anderson screaming the words of Kane, “people will think…what I tell them to think.”
In spite of his pursuit of these darker themes, Anderson, as he did with Mr. Fox and themes of natural destruction in favor of industry, keeps the tone light and family-friendly, laced with laughable jokes and lovable characters. Just as Mr. Fox finds the solution to their destruction in the pride of their naturally unique abilities to survive, the students, through their investigation into Kobayashi, and Atari, through his journey into the world of dogs, find their meaning.