Most dog films are cute, cuddly and winsome. Most dog films aren’t made by Wes Anderson.
It says something about our relationship with pets that roughly one hour into Anderson’s bizarre and dystopian Isle of Dogs, my investment in the film’s characters was such that a tear was winding its way down my critic-hardened cheek. It is the story of a gang of alpha-misfits and a boy who pines for his pup; a bloody, violent and frankly surreal experience, set within a grim WALL-E like world of waste disposal and cynophpbia. Impressive stuff.
In a not-so-distant future Japan, the puppy population has been overwhelmed by a terrible virus. The first phase is ‘dog flu’ (weight loss/narcolepsy etc), the second is ‘snout fever’ (looking grim), and the third may well be the transfusion of the virus into the human ‘disease pool’. This is a risk that the Mayor of Megasaki City, Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), is not prepared to take.
Kobayashi is a dog-hating, authoritarian director – he looks like Stalin and hosts annual ‘re-elections’ – and is only too pleased to banish every dog in the city to Trash Island, starting with the guard dog of his ward, the young Atari (Koyu Rankin).
Lost without his tail-wagging companion, Atari hitches a ride in a helicopter over to the island on a rescue mission. On crash-landing, however, the role’s reversed as he is himself rescued by a pack of dumped dogs, brilliantly named: Chief, Rex, King, Boss and Duke. With the help of this group of wannabe alphas, Atari’s journey to find his lost best friend, Spots, is one of moving self-discovery, wry wit and a dog’s ear for gossip.
As is established right from the start, the division between four and two legged characters is linguistically conveyed in Isle of Dogs. The people speak unsubtitled Japanese – save for eco-activist Tracy (Greta Gerwig) and an interpreter (Francis McDormand) – whilst the dogs are voiced by English-speaking Americans. It’s a cracking ensemble, comprising Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum, and deliberately homogenous. All speak in that very recognisable pitter patter of Anderson dialogue.
The quirk here, as with his Fantastic Mr. Fox, is that Anderson is working with stop-motion animation and is thus able to match the stilted script with a fractured visual effect. Broken, that is, but utterly beautiful. From the cardboard cityscape to a chromatic cave of glass bottles, every meticulously crafted scene is a picture perfect construct. Indeed, an arty to Hokusai’s Great Wave celebrates Japan’s history of unique style.
Of course it’s cultural appropriation and, yes, one could argue a case of the old white-savour but Anderson knows well enough that Japan has long inspired Western arts and culture. As Alexandre Desplat’s taiko-drum-infused score strums behind the action, it is clear that Anderson is enveloped in a stylistic utopia.
Blissful aesthetic touches balance a bleaker heart in Isle of Dogs. Fascinating to watch, heart-breaking to experience and very Wes Anderson, naturally.