The latest film from Wes Anderson is a joyous ode to both Japanese Cinema and Man’s best friend. Amongst a filmography chock-full of quality and style, It proves to be his most creative and masterful work to date.
There’s a moment not too far into the Isle of Dogs in which I detected a familiar tune building in the background. I wondered if it had featured in the trailer or in one of the many promotional snippets released, before I suddenly clicked. It was the main theme from Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 classic, Seven Samurai. That powerful and iconic piece of movie music was playing loud and proud over the bickering of a few animated dogs. From that moment on I knew exactly what I was in for, and it was everything I’d hoped it would be.
There’s something I should probably make clear up front. Never before in the build up of a film have I had the feeling that it might as well have been designed specifically for me. What I mean by that is in terms of influence, creative direction, cast and plotting, Isle of Dogs presses all of my favourite buttons. The multitude of charming snippets and clips shown prior to the film’s release only stoked the fires of excitement. Wes Anderson creating a Japan-infused stop-motion animation about dogs, with the likes of Jeff Goldblum and Bill Murray in the voice booth is quite literally a dream combination of mine. Now you could say with that in mind, I should be destined to love this film. To look past any flaws in favour of such splendid ingredients. However, I’d argue that with my hype levels engaged so fully, I could have just as easily been setting myself up for major disappointment.
Isle of Dogs tells the story Atari Kobayashi, 12 year-old ward to the corrupt, cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi. As a perfectly paced prologue informs us, the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki has been stricken with an unfortunate case of snout fever, courtesy of the canine population. With the fear of this disease transferring to humans, the evil Mayor puts in place an executive decree: all dogs will be exiled to the nearby Trash Island to live out their lives out of sight and out of mind. The first dog to be banished just happens to be Atari’s very own security dog Spots. Fast-forward 6 months and the young Kobayashi is crash-landing a small hijacked plane in the middle of the Island. From there he meets a rag-tag bunch of Alpha strays willing to help the young pilot find his dog and potentially change the direction of proceedings back at Megasaki.
By focusing his plot around the simple connection between man and dog, Wes taps into an inherent desire we all have to project our love onto our furry friends, giving us a set of protagonists we’re undoubtedly going to back 100% (unless you’re one of those weirdos that doesn’t like dogs, in which case, didn’t the film’s title put you off?). From that premise he weaves a tale of companionship and love, countered by propaganda and protest. As Atari continues his adventure on Trash Island, things start to get heated back in Megasaki City. While the majority of the population buy into the message of hate and fear directed at the dogs, small pockets of resistance want to do something about it. From a scientist trying to prove a cure, to an eerily apt group of activist kids campaigning against the decree, this small tale of diseased dogs manages to hold a mirror up to our own world.
The theme of communication is played with quite a bit in Isle of Dogs, with an opening card informing viewers that the humans in the film will be speaking in their native tongue. The dog barks, however, have been translated into English. It offers an interesting dynamic in which we understand the canine characters more than we do the humans, it helps us see mankind exactly as it often proves to be, abusive and ignorant.
From the opening credit sequence that plays out over a taito drum band, i was transfixed to Isle of Dogs. Three little guys playing their music, nodding their heads and keeping the beat, just like a real band would. There’s such an authenticity and attention to detail to all of the subtle movements here it’s hard not to be anything but impressed, and that’s just in the first 10 minutes. This is Anderson’s second foray into the world of stop-motion animation after 2009’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, but it’s astounding how far his vision has come. The artistry and craft on show is incredible. He’s always been known to value aesthetics and design in his films, but he takes it to another level here. From the gorgeous use of bi-lingual typography to the hand-drawn segments that play out on camera screens, Isle of Dogs is designed to within an inch of it’s life, and it’s a joy to behold. The charming visuals are the perfect compliment to Wes’ signature comedic timing too.
It’s a very funny film. Emotional and dramatic at more than a few points, but ultimately hilarious. This is partly down to the fantastic cast of voice actors. Once again Anderson has assembled an absolutely stellar list of names including several of his usual suspects. Ed Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Bob Balaban make up the main pack of dogs, with Bryan Cranston entering the fold as their leader/non-leader Chief. The characters play off each other wonderfully, with each dog managing to characterise the real-life actors perfectly. More of a surprise to me though were the Japanese cast, and specifically how they managed to match the performances of their english-speaking counterparts. Koyu Rankin plays Atari, and barring a single mutter of ‘good boy’ delivers entirely in Japanese. His passionate and tender performance manages to strike a chord, despite the fact we don’t really know what he’s saying. It’s a bold move by Anderson but one that ultimately pays off, adding that backbone of authenticity.
Speaking of Japan, this is as much a love-letter to classic Japanese cinema as it is to dogs and animation. Like the aforementioned Seven Samurai theme, Isle of Dogs is littered with subtle nods to directors like Kurosawa, Yasujirō Ozu and Hayao Miyazaki. Shots that play out like samurai showdowns of old, rousing bursts of traditonal music, the influence is clear but it all plays out through a typically unique Wes Anderson spectrum. I was in my element.
I can say wholeheartedly that for me Wes Anderson absolutely delivered on all expectations with Isle of Dogs, and even added more into the mix than I ever thought possible. Gorgeous and charming to look at with a heart of gold. It had me smiling from start to finish, and I never really wanted it to end.
Watch it if you liked: The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Kubo and the Two Strings, Japanese Cinema in general!