Isle of Dogs

This gorgeous and rambunctious stop motion adventure set in a future Japan where dogs have been exiled sees Wes Anderson at his most imaginative and loose-limbed

Film Review by Jamie Dunn | 16 Feb 2018
Film title: Isle of Dogs
Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Kunichi Nomura, Liev Schreiber, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Harvey Keitel
Release date: 30 Mar

Wes Anderson films tend to be set in refined environments: ornate hotels, elite private schools, finely upholstered New York brownstones. The location of his new stop motion adventure – an island trash heap – is far from salubrious but is no less gorgeous. He might be the only director currently working who’s capable of creating a rubbish dump you want to visit. Sometimes you can polish a turd.

Like his exquisite Roald Dahl adaptation Fantastic Mr Fox, the cast of puppets – an assortment of mangy canines who live amid this squalor – are lush, expressive, and undeniably adorable despite their matted fur, tick-ridden skin and bloodshot eyeballs. Even their food looks good. When one of the dogs claws open a plastic bag of half-eaten and partially rancid leftovers crawling with maggots, we share the dogs’ desire to chow down.

They've found themselves eating garbage to survive after their whole species was banished from Megasaki City after a nasty strain of snout-flu, the symptoms for which include both narcolepsy and insomnia, swept the canine population. We’re told in the opening credits that these events are taking place 20 years in the future, but as in all Anderson's films the time period is hazy. Robotics are advanced enough to create stainless steel attack dogs as replacements for man’s best friend, but retro tech like cathode ray televisions and cassette recorders also seem a la mode.

Responsible for the dog banishment is Kobayashi, Megasaki’s power-hungry mayor. A playful prologue set in feudal times shows that Kobayashi is part of a cat-loving dynasty, so he may have ulterior motives for the hasty quarantine. To show he means business, the first dog he exiles is Spots (Liev Schreiber), the beloved guard-dog of his orphaned ward Atari (Koyu Rankin), and the bulk of the movie takes the form of this plucky 12-year-old’s attempted rescue mission to save his four-legged pal.

It won’t be easy though. In Anderson’s world dogs communicate exclusively in English, so the nuances of Atari’s plan go uncommunicated to the locals when he crashes his mini-plane on Trash Island. We, the audience, are in a similar position, as none of the Japanese dialogue is subtitled, although Anderson gets around this in typically inventive fashion.

The Texan director has assembled many of his unofficial repertory to voice the dogs, with Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum and Ed Norton playing mutts who seem to have been specially shaped for the actors. Goldblum’s Duke, for example, is a total gossip who loves a good pedicure while Murray’s Boss is a hotdog-loving Little League baseball mascot. Anderson has wisely realised his fave actors are all far too urbane to play Chief, a cynical stray and the meanest and mangiest of the pack. The blue-collar timber of Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston is roped in, and he makes a pleasingly cranky lead canine (“I bite,” is his catchphrase).

This may be an animal movie but it’s far from cuddly. We should have guessed as much; dogs don’t tend to fare well in Anderson’s movies, from the family beagle that gets crushed under the wheels of a sports car in The Royal Tenenbaums to the fox terrier that’s skewered by a Boy Scout’s stray arrow in Moonrise Kingdom. The dogs here take a similar beating, although the ripping of fur and flesh tends to be obscured in Chuck Jones-style dust clouds, which look, in stop motion animation, like tumbling balls of cotton wool mixed in with doggy limbs. Atari looks similarly war-torn: some baby teeth have been knocked free, his left ear has turned a dark shade of purple, and a sprocket from the plane he crashed is protruding from his noggin.

Child brain trauma isn’t the only reason why Isle of Dogs is spiky. Anderson’s earlier films are joyous and visually rich, but even devotees would be hard pressed to argue that they had much to say beyond the romantic yearnings and familial dysfunctions of their misfit heroes. With his most recent films, however, Anderson has not only broken away from his homeland, he’s also opened his films up beyond his own navel-gazing to slyly engage with the world at large. The rise of fascism in 40s Europe was the backdrop to The Grand Budapest Hotel’s intricate crime caper narrative and acted as a candy-coloured mirror to the rise of right wing extremists across Europe and America.

Watching Isle of Dogs, it doesn't take much imagination to see a connection between the film’s brutish antagonist – a ruthless politician with a hatred for facts, science and the free press, as well as a fondness for deporting those he feels are inferior – and the commander-in-chief of Anderson's homeland. Anderson is American cinema’s great stylist, but he’s also developing into a fine political filmmaker.

Isle of Dogs can’t claim to be Anderson’s funniest film (that would be Rushmore) or his most heartfelt (see Moonrise Kingdom), but it’s a front runner as his most wildly imaginative. Stop motion, by nature, is an idiosyncratic medium and its jerky idiosyncrasies breathe life into Anderson’s increasing fussy cinema of pedantic detail and meticulous tableaux. There are some inspired touches that bring in other animated styles too. The various television broadcasts we see from Megasaki, keeping us abreast of developments in the human world, take the form of beautiful hand-drawn animations that look like pages ripped from a manga paperback. This gorgeous film is at its most breathtaking during a poetic eddy in the narrative when Atari and Chief find themself separated from the pack and framed against the setting sun, and it's as if they've suddenly stepped into an ancient shadowplay.

There’s also a charming looseness to the film’s sprawling shaggy dog(s) story. As well as rescue adventure, the film mixes elements of conspiracy thriller, post-apocalyptic disaster movie, Orwellian state dystopia and a four-legged love story that could have been scripted by Raymond Chandler. If you find Anderson’s increasingly hermetically sealed worlds and fastidious dolls’ house aesthetic a tad stifling, this rambunctious tale made with literal dolls set in a world of trash should prove a breath of fresh air.

Isle of Dogs was the opening film of this year's Berlinale, and also opens the 2018 Glasgow Film Festival: Wed 21 Feb, GFT, 7pm | Thu 22 Feb, GFT 3.25pm
Released in the UK on 30 Mar by 20th Century Fox

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