Everyone’s favourite Houston-hailing indie darling is back with a stop-motion delight of visual and narrative expansiveness. Isle of Dogs is a hilarious and heartfelt tale so distinctly Wes Anderson; testament to his unparalleled status as a twenty-first century auteur.
In the dystopian future of Japan, the feline-fond Mayor Kobayashi signs an odious decree, ordering for the exile of all dogs to Trash Island, after the outbreak of a mysterious flu virus devastates the canine population of the fictional city of Megasaki. A young rebel, Atari (Koyu Rankin), hops aboard a stolen plane and journeys out to the distant colony in search of his dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), meeting “a pack of scary, indestructible alpha-dogs” who aid him in his quest, providing the backbone for an inventive tale of political unrest, protest groups, anthropomorphic antics, and un undying love for man’s best friend.
The film is arguably Anderson’s boldest and most authoritative yet. It is an absorbing world so unequivocal of the filmmaker’s determined artistic interests that one cannot help but to think of this as the summit of his creative freedom. There is so much information fostered into every frame that sometimes the film’s design can appear bustling, lending the impression of an artist restless, perhaps too eager to overload us with his entities. However, each individual shot equipped for dissection boasts such a flair for staggering and splendid detail. Unlike the island itself, the images taking place there exclusively never feel cluttered, and these scenes are comprised of imagery which only stand to serve and nourish the glorious mise en scene. It is a place that by origin appears ensnared in filth and chaos, recalling the expository shots of Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel – the director’s work is a bold and indebted influence on the entire production. It is this meticulous realisation of disorder, which has been painstakingly constructed by animators, that immediately entices audiences; much like the films’s other compromising elements, it is affectionately charming and sympathetic. There are so many images to unpack, from the rainbow glow of the gang’s cosy hut constructed of sake bottles, to the cherry blossoms falling in a unison of symmetrical poetry so typical of Anderson’s visual style.
For all of the film’s beauty, it’s humour remains its crowning jewel. The dialogue between the tight-knit group of dogs is delivered with such a dry and comic wit, and quickly becomes impossible to resist. Edward Norton’s vocal performance as Rex provides the majority of the film’s comic highs. The way in which these animals talk like disenfranchised caricatures of Jarmusch inspired indie-cool never fails to raise a chuckle. Anderson’s ability to find comedy in the smallest of details is the skill for which he is adored for, and this talent reaches new heights here. The canine protagonists are voiced by Anderson regulars – the aforementioned Norton, Bob Balaban (King), Bill Murray (Boss), Jeff Goldblum (Duke) – and also, new to the mix, Bryan Cranston as the leader of the pack, Chief, of whom gives an emotional and nuanced performance, on behalf of the skilled craftsman responsible for the visual movements of the character. The way that the fur appears to move, courtesy of the animators using their hands to position it between shots, dates back to 1933’s King Kong, suggesting a love and care for the craft compulsory in creating something this wonderfully detailed.
The visuals and humour are superlative, however, there are some concerns that detract from such supremacy. The Japanese characters are voiceless, and often translated by numerous individuals, such as Frances McDormand’s Interpreter Nelson. Due to the frequency of this relaying of information, it becomes puzzling as to why Anderson avoids subtitling the important dialogue of major characters, as this regurgitation of linguistics becomes tedious as the narrative progresses into a more politically allegorical narrative. There are also sub-plots that, although necessary, feel a little tiresome in comparison to the plot threads of the film’s main characters, such as that of the youth protest group. The character of Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), remains a bore throughout, and her recurring and elevated presence becomes a little grating in a story of Japanese location.
Packed with an incredible amount of detail, Isle of Dogs finishes with a lingering demand to be revisited; not only to take in it’s abundance of information, but additionally, for the sheer enjoyability of its cherishable mages and performances. As evident in every one of Anderson’s films, the cast are having great fun working with one of America’s most imaginative filmmakers, and this experience is shared with the audience. It is visually striking, gorgeously conceptualised, and unbelievably funny; amounting in a film to celebrate, offering a reinforced indication of Anderson’s wonderful talent and motivation as a director to note.