Isle of Dogs (2018) Dir. Wes Anderson
Pretentious. Hipster. Smug. You name it, I’ve said it about Wes Anderson films. His pop-up book aesthetic and cardboard characters have never done it for me sadly. Where there have been successes – my favourites being 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums and 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – the bold colourful stylistic choices from the director found fans from across the spectrum, but for me the hollow “model railway” compositions have often been a side-show nuisance. And with a similar look to all his output I’ve consistently struggled to discover much development beyond his first few movies.
But – and it is a real big but – his latest film Isle of Dogs is nothing short of a triumph. And I’m as surprised as anyone. This stop-motion animation has all the director’s usual norms, yet here they are in the service of a shaggy dog tale that works on many levels.
Loosely inspired by seeing a road sign for the Isle of Dogs in Tower Hamlets (England), Anderson has set his film in a near-future Japan, where a canine-flu outbreak sees dogs banished to Trash Island by Mayor Kenji Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura). 6 months later, the Mayor’s young nephew Atari then crash lands on the island as he searches for his exiled dog called Spots.
Saving Atari from a less-than-pleasant rescue team is a pack of hounds comprising Bryan Cranston as Chief, Edward Norton as Rex, Bob Balaban as King, Bill Murray as Boss and Jeff Goldblum as Duke. The group agree to help Atari in his search as a journey begins across the bizarre island.
Anderson’s “flat” shooting style works perfectly here and is reminiscent of Asian shadow puppetry seen using Kageboushi (silhouette). This ancient form of storytelling and entertainment uses back-lit cut out figures and although Anderson’s brilliantly animated scruffy dogs have more shape to them, his 2-D worlds sit nicely within this cultural look.
As a prelude to cinematography with use of slides, music and voice, Anderson’s film uses this influence to make his film simplistic but also cinematic. The voice work of established Anderson veterans is superb – with a world weariness coming across in each of their husky tones. Their gruff smarminess is complimented with real emotion and pathos whilst Anderson doesn’t scrimp on the silly comedy at times too.
A stylistic choice to avoid English subtitles on the Japanese speakers further emphasises the shared cultural understanding and far from appropriation, I saw the film’s focus on Asian ancestry as a love-letter to its many respected charms, beliefs and customs. The animation and design are also top-notch. Each dog has its own persona whilst their tribulations through garbage factories and fights with other packs are excellently conveyed in sequences filled with Anderson’s dry wit.
Another fine detail is the multi-faceted nature of the movie. One could read it as a cultural discussion, an auteur animation, a fight against power, a look at family units or just simply a tall children’s tale and all would be valid. Like the best of Pixar – Isle of Dogs takes universal ideas and delivers them back to a young and a mature audience to interpret without flagrantly pandering to either.
For someone who was incredibly indifferent about this director’s previous work, it has been more than a pleasant experience to find a film that satisfies me like most of them satisfy his fans. Cameos from Greta Gerwig, Tilda Swinton and even Yoko Ono round out the eclectic cast and provide some unique depth to the more basic story. So, the Isle of Dogs comes highly recommended from me and I found this surprising litter of canine characters and prevailing pedigree pups an absolute joy throughout their adventures on Trash Island.
Midlands Movies Mike