Isle Of Dogs

With Isle of Dogs Wes Anderson takes a second run at stop-motion animation after Fantastic Mr. Fox—a fun if ultimately unfulfilling romp—and produces much more impressive and pleasing results. His latest film tells the story of a young Japanese boy named Atari who leaves the safety of his home in fictional Megasaki and travels to Trash Island to find his lost dog Spots. During his rescue mission he meets and recruits a pack of dogs led by the stray Chief (Bryan Cranston). This deeply personal tale takes place in the context of a much wider story in which the city of Megasaki, ruled over by the corrupt mayor Kobayashi, has banished all dogs from the mainland in a supposed attempt to protect the human population from dog flu and snout fever. As the film progresses a resistance movement, led by American exchange student Tracy, tries to uncover the truth of Kobayashi’s villainous plans for the dogs of Megasaki. Anderson’s script does a masterful job of telling these two concurrent narratives, expertly juggling the over-arching with the personal, with each informing the other in a way that is at times both hilarious and devastating.

 

 

The plot, the script, the characters, Alexandre Desplat’s inimitable score and the pop soundtrack; this is Wes Anderson in full Wes Anderson mode, and yet at the same time recontextualising his style in the cultural and political history of Japan gives Isle of Dogs a sense of novelty. The production design is also a departure from what is familiar to his audience. Gone are the bright pastel colours—replaced by deeper and yet more complex visuals—and the canine puppets are not the type that you would want your children to play with for fear of nightmares. Of Wes Anderson’s usual cabal of actors only Bill Murray and Edward Norton, playing Boss and Rex, return but there are a host of new faces (or at least voices) who effortlessly deliver Anderson’s unique dialogue. Liev Schrieber (Spots) and Greta Gerwig (Tracy), in underpinning the emotional and political cores of the film respectively, are the stand-outs although a great deal of praise must also go to 12-year-old Koyu Rankin, who voices Atari. Having said this, one of the few problems that the film has is in its handling of Scarlett Johansson’s Nutmeg, who has a flirtation with Chief throughout the film but is never fleshed out and is instantly forgotten the moment she is off screen.

 

 

 Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s most mature work. In previous films, Moonrise Kingdom and Rushmore come to mind, he explores the nature of friendship, but never in a way that felt connected to the way in which real people interact. Here however, in the triangle of Atari, Spots and Chief, he effectively explores the concepts of loyalty, trust and love. Anderson’s maturity is evident too in the fact that there is a great deal more politics in Isle of Dogs than has ever been present in his work before now. There are messages about the differences which exist between people, and why they might not be so great or important after all, and there are allusions to the way in which we treat, or mistreat, the environment. In choosing to have the audience be able to understand the dogs but not the humans, who speak largely in untranslated Japanese, Anderson places the audience on the side of the canines and we look at the majority of the humans in the film with distrust. This in itself forces us to address the way in which we perceive those who look, sound or come across differently to ourselves.
Ultimately Isle of Dogs, while still displaying much of Wes Anderson’s unique idiosyncratic style, feels like a coming-of-age for the director. He has tried his hand at exploring murkier themes in the past but has always felt more at home in the oddball world of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Now however, in being wiling to venture into darker territory, he has delivered a film which feels truly insightful while still remaining entertaining and enjoyable.
★★★★ and a half

Tim Abrams

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