When a new film is helmed by an Anderson (Wes and Paul Thomas – sorry, Paul WS), it’s practically demanded that supposed film fans make a trip to the cinema to form their own opinion. And a new Wes Anderson film is just the sort of big budget ‘quirky’ film to whip us up into a frenzy.
Like the devotees of P.T. Anderson, Wes fanatics are a devoted bunch, declaring their favourite Bill Murray performance with ease and asserting that Luke Wilson is the best Wilson brother at the drop of a Steve Zissou red bobble hat. So upon hearing that Wes’s whimsical style has been shone through the prism of animation once again in the form of Isle of Dogs, I thought it better warrant a visit to my local cineplex (a shout out to Cardigan Fields in Leeds – leather-seated mundanity yet reliable as ever).
Isle of Dogs tells the tail (sorry) of a fictional Japanese city sometime in the future, where dogs have been outlawed and are infected with a debilitating flu-like disease known as ‘snout fever’. Mayor and angry-shouldered despot Kobayashi’s solution is to deport all dogs to Trash Island just miles off the coast – a festering waste land that acts as a rubbish-laden mausoleum to the city’s throwaway society.
We are introduced to a band of bedraggled canine characters, led by Bryan Cranston in a gravelly voice that rattles the speakers and is reminiscent of George Clooney’s own charismatic voice work in Anderson’s last animated feature Fantastic Mr Fox (2009). Anderson alumni Bill Murray, Edward Norton and Jeff Goldblum are Boss, Rex and Duke respectively – and though it is a delight to here them bicker as this mutt-ley (again, sorry) crew of dogs, it’s only Cranston who gets the opportunity to shine in the role and leave a lasting impression as Chief, the curmudgeonly stray. Once 12 year-old Atari Kobayashi crash lands on Trash Island to find his missing and much-loved guard dog, Spots, action takes the place of character development and the focus is placed on Chief and the frighteningly determined Atari, a former ward to the mayor. As they are embroiled in a seemingly impossible task to reunite the boy with his animal companion, implausible hijinks ensue.
Anderson’s work has always delighted in throwing together characters that are finely drawn to cause conflict and eke out emotional breakthroughs, see The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited for examples of this (with varying degrees of success), and Isle of Dogs once again plays with this narrative trope.
Back in the city, foreign exchange student Tracy is on the brink of discovering the conspiracy that has caused the whole dog population to be exiled. Voiced with riotgrrl determination by Greta Gerwig, nothing will get in the way of Tracy leading a teenage rebellion, fuelled by chocolate milk and armed with a trusty tape recorder. It could be said that the film is less interested in this side of the conflict, but the unfolding drama is cleverly told via anime-style newsreels and the Japanese dialogue is translated by Frances McDormand, at her best playing a competent, if slightly exasperated English language interpreter tasked with relating the mayor’s increasingly alarming doctrines.
The film is also served well by a welcoming narration by Courtney B. Vance (known perhaps for most recently playing the outrageously savvy Johnnie Cochran in The People vs. OJ Simpson).
Like Fantastic Mr Fox before it, Isle of Dogs is stunning piece of artistry that can be admired even if the film is not loved by all. There are rare moments of stillness within scenes that allow you the briefest of chances to inspect the fine hairs that form Atari’s eyebrows or notice the shade of iris blue chosen to illuminate Chief’s frenzied stares. When the four-legged adventurers let their animal instincts take over, the animation doesn’t shy away from bloody horror of the Mad Max-style battle for survival Trash Island can be either. Puppet dog ears be damned.
Infused throughout the film, the trademark ‘quirky’ humour remains, even when annihilation is threatened. A pug, whose handful of lines are voiced by Tilda Swinton is a hilarious minor detail and well deserved the chance to prolong the gag of her supposed psychic abilities.
Isle of Dogs is a lean, mean and yet admirable adventure story that isn’t afraid to be decidedly adult in its execution and themes. It succeeds where Fantastic Mr Fox occasionally failed, in balancing the family-friendly credentials of its source material while creating a film that Wes fans and even sometime Wes skeptics (like myself) can get enormous pleasure out of too.