Image: Chief, King, Atari, Boss, Rex and Duke in search of Atari’s dog Spots [Source: IMDB]
Wes Anderson returns his symmetrical, harmonic and soft-spoken deadpan emotional maturity to his second animated feature. Set in the Japanese archipelago, ruled over by the Kobayashi clan, the public is coerced into anti-dog discrimination when “snout-flu” breaks out, rendering all dogs as a potential biological threat. The nearby “trash-island” becomes the new home for all canines including the mayor’s ward’s dog, Spots. In a wild, desperate attempt to find his dog, the mayor’s ward, Atari, travels to trash island to find his canine companion.
Director: Wes Anderson. Starring: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Koyu Rankin, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe [PG]
Superficially this is Wes Anderson’s most commercial film to date, full of sweet characters, charming visuals and simple messages. For a lack of nuance, this is a “whole family can enjoy” kind of picture. Ironically, this is also Wes Anderson’s most innovative picture in years, he truly uses the breadth of his catalogue of camera direction and mise-en-scene control. But then furthers on this, adapting his style and growing for the better.
In typical fashion, his control of audience’s eyes and scene dynamics, as well as staging, is remarkable. Even in a landscape that is by nature messy, Anderson challenges himself in his location settings to incorporate his symmetrical detail orientated focus. Additionally, the animation style, befitting his auteur sensibility, is just as artificially matter of fact and touchingly real as his characters. The aesthetic is one of a coarse authenticity and it plays into personalities seamlessly. However, the supporting cast of the “hero pack” of dogs, feel lacklustre and frankly empty.
Which is unusual for Wes Anderson, as even demonstrated in this picture but notably in his other work, even the smallest of parts seems so interestingly characterised that you cannot help but find them enthralling. Here, however, outside of Chief and Rex, the pack feels wasted and absent. Equally the supposed side plot in the movie, featuring Greta Gerwig’s political activist, clearly tailored towards the grown-ups – is largely unimpactful, its ultimate goal is achieved without it and it does little more than add flavourful dialogue.
The hit and miss nature is also present in Isle of Dogs’ humour, when it works it is terrifically enjoyable and even adds a twinge of bleak humour at times (which is certainly bold for a film aimed at younger audiences) but when it’s too askew its painfully noticeable, distracting from the comfortability that Anderson usually brings. Despite this, Isle of Dogs, for the most part, is expectedly charming. The soundtrack is absolutely intoxicating and adds to the impression that Isle of Dogs is unlike anything that has come before it (outside of Anderson’s work). To which end then this could be dubbed a stronger, more touching and engaging Fantastic Mr. Fox.
There has been debate over whether this film is culturally appropriative, and there is certainly a case to be made, with several tourist-fuelled impressions of Japan and the nation painted with a broad brush. There is also a directional choice made to barely ever translate the Japanese characters: they speak their common tongue and the dogs speak English. This can create an idea of demonization to the Japanese characters, they are largely, the villains – but in Isle of Dogs, this is clearly to lend sympathy and connection the canine characters rather than our humankind. While it is commonplace for Anderson to use broad strokes when creating characters of other cultures, it’s a technique that Westerners are subject to comparable scrutiny.
Which Is why Isle of Dogs bears no malice. Brimming with Wes Anderson’s stylistic whimsicality, it is a purely innocent homage to our canine companions and Japanese culture alike. Padded with simple yet lovingly touching observations and insight into sweeping messages of loyalty, companionship and a tad of political warnings. Isle of Dogs is an imaginative adventure with man’s favourite furry friends.