Despite its flaws and controversies, Isle of Dogs is a unique and refreshing watch that guarantees both smiles and food-for-thought in equal measure.
Wes Anderson is no stranger to telling the quirkiest of tales; you’ve only got to cast your mind back a few years to the zany adventures of a concierge and lobby boy in The Grand Budapest Hotel to realise that it’s not in his nature to come up with a conventional story idea. He’s also no stranger to stop-motion. Rightly adored by kids and adults alike, his 2009 adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic, Fantastic Mr. Fox, was filled to the brim with class and proved that Anderson has the potential to place his auteur stamp on any medium. His latest venture, Isle of Dogs, provides the perfect outlet for blending these two aspects of Anderson’s work – a second venture into stop-motion, and a barking mad story to match.
Set in the fictional Megasaki City in Japan, Isle of Dogs follows the quest of 12 year old Atari (Koyu Rankin) to be reunited with his dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), following the controversial decision of the cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi to banish all dogs to Trash Island following a supposed mass outbreak of ‘canine flu’. Rational and scientific attempts to find a less destructive solution are prevented by what is essentially an untouchable regime of dictatorship, leaving Atari with no option but to take flight to the Island himself in order to be reunited with his companion.
Anderson presents a truly heartwarming story, but it wouldn’t be far-fetched to claim that there are some serious political intentions in what appears to be a family crowd-pleaser at surface level. There’s great allegorical potential in this concept and Anderson uses it in a superbly subtle manner, with Japan acting as the backdrop for an exploration of concerns and issues equally applicable to Western society. In a highly divisive era of calls to deport migrant populations (and build walls to stop them coming back), it certainly doesn’t seem so ridiculous that a developed nation could find themselves under the leadership of a power hungry, irrational dictator desperate to get rid of minority groups and use any means to cover up a potential scandal…
It wouldn’t be a Wes Anderson film without a bunch of oddball characters and Isle of Dogs certainly delivers on this front. Along the way, Atari is joined by a pack of charming canines that contribute to what is a ridiculously brilliant voice cast – Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are just a few of the huge names that give these quirky characters such endearing charm and make them all perfect contenders for the prestigious role as man’s-best-friend. The hottest talent around appear to be leaping at the chance to work with Anderson.
The brilliant voice cast go a long way in bringing these furry friends to life, but the real life and vibrancy in the film comes largely from the tremendous animation on display. Stop-motion is the perfect means for telling this story and Anderson uses it to its full potential; removed from reality enough to have a distinct visual charm, yet not so far removed that the core, human message of the film is lost. We want to reach out and touch each object on display as meticulous attention to detail oozes from every inch of the frame.
However, at times it feels like Anderson is barking up the wrong tree as issues of cultural appropriation crop up. Although by no means entirely absent from the credits, there’s a worrying lack of Japanese faces in both the cast and crew and the decision to name the central character Atari feels alarmingly stereotypical. Tracy, an American exchange student, is a particularly problematic character, as she essentially takes on the role of the American hero or white saviour saving the East from a lack of civilisation by essentially demanding that the Japanese scientists ‘pull themselves together’. Although its impossible to be sure of the intentions behind its associations with Japan, the very fact that these debates can even be mentioned somewhat tarnishes the film with a sense of Western heroism, which, ironically, could be the very message that Anderson is trying to critique at its core.
Inherently weird on almost every level (even the way it deals with the language barrier is totally unconventional), but for all its weirdness and fundamental flaws, Isle of Dogs is still an incredibly refreshing work. This time of year marks the end of Oscars bait being released en masse and a move towards copious amounts of Blockbusters hitting our screens – a totally creative work like this is certainly a welcome escape from the commercial escapism we increasingly struggle to avoid. Isle of Dogs is ultimately an example of an auteur at his peak, producing consistently challenging, intriguing, yet enjoyable work; it’s hard to not be excited for whatever this man might turn his hand to next.
Isle of Dogs (2018), directed by Wes Anderson, is distributed in the UK by Fox Searchlight Pictures, certificate PG.