Set in Megasaki City, Japan, it follows the story of a young boy Atari who travels to Trash Island to save his dog Spots who has been exiled there along with all canines following an outbreak of Dog Flu by the villainous Mayor Kobayashi, whose family has been holding a grudge against the animals ever since an amusing prologue sequence where their cat-loving ancestor was defeated in battle against the dogs.
Crash landing on the island after stealing a plane, Atari is met by a pack of dogs who will help him on his quest to be reunited with his pet. Even if one of them is resistant to the idea of helping a human, a stray called Chief (voiced by Anderson-newcomer Bryan Cranston).
With that synopsis, so far, so Pixar but that is where the comparisons end… with the exception that Trash Island, built up of cubes of rubbish, looks like it was constructed by Wall-E.
Just like his adaptation of Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, Anderson manages to fill every frame, character and line of dialogue with his unique style and sense of whimsy, quirkiness and humour.
This is clear from the outset when the audience is told that the human characters will speak in their native tongue (Japanese with the odd piece of translation by an interpreter) but all the dogs barks have been changed to English.
This trick puts the audience firmly on the side of the dogs, who are the victims of “fake news” and propaganda from a government who is using the dog flu outbreak to push through their own personal agenda to rid the country of canines before the flu crosses over to the human population. Even to the point of covering up a cure for the disease.
This cover up brings in the second part of the story, which features a group of students investigating the corruption and leading protests against the government, which handily features a foreign exchange student from America (Greta Gerwig, whose tones prove a Great Earwig) to provide a recognisable voice in the fight.
Indeed, the story is much more grown up than Fox and it will be interesting to see what the audience will be for this film as it feels like a more adult tale told within the animation medium.
So in that respects, Anderson has chosen wisely by setting the story in Japan because Studio Ghibli has spent the last few decades making films for families that have very difficult subject matter e.g. My Neighbour Totoro is about loss of a family member, Grave Of The Fireflies is set during the Hiroshima bombing.
However the central crux of the role of man’s best friend in society, the importance of looking after them and rewarding their loyalty is matched with boundless charm and levity by the voice work of a stellar cast of Anderson regulars including Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton and Jeff Goldblum who is hilarious as a gossip-hungry dog whose catchphrase becomes “Did you hear the rumour about…”
Yet it is Bryan Cranston’s scrappy stray Chief who is the Best In Show, going on an arc that is as epic as Noah’s, and all of it is believable thanks to Cranston’s vocal performance.
Also, as strange as it may sound, Isle of Dogs provides what could be 2018’s most flirtatious and sexiest scene of the year… between two stop motion animation dogs as Chief is introduced to show dog Nutmeg voiced by Scarlett Johannson.
But that is just a credit to the outstanding work of the animators and puppet designers who handcrafted each animal to a level of believability that the audience forget they are watching an animation.
The detail on each individual dog is astounding and helps in providing each with its own sense of character and identity.
You know that a filmmaker has achieved the desired effect when an entire auditorium collectively “Awwwws” at the sight of five newborn puppies on screen. Yes, hundreds of people audibly reacting to a puppy made out of plasticine and fur.
The design of the characters and settings provides a Kurosawa feel to the movie, enhanced by Alexandre Desplat’s wonderful score that makes great use of Taiko drumming.
Deftly walking the tightrope of Eastern and Western influences, Anderson has bred a film of the highest pedigree that must already be the favourite to win the Best Animated Film at next year’s Oscars.
Just like the play on words in the title, even the most ardent cat person will come out of Isle Of Dogs boldly exclaiming “I love dogs!”. You would be barking mad to miss it!