Director: Wes Anderson
Screenplay: Wes Anderson
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Kunichi Nomura, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Harvey Keitel, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Akira Ito, Akira Takayama, F. Murray Abraham, Yojiro Noda, Mari Natsuki, Yoko Ono, Frank Wood
Runtime: 101 Minutes
There are precious few filmmakers whose aesthetic visual language can work as well in the field of animation as they do in live-action. Wes Anderson’s immensely satisfying love for immaculately composed lateral frames and exhibitionist staging couldn’t be better suited to stop-motion animation.
But whereas his previous foray into the medium with Fantastic Mr. Fox felt more like a traditional Wes Anderson film seen through the lens of a familiar but reinterpreted text, his penchants for conversation driven, tonally fluctuating tales filled with a unique blend of quaintness and melancholy feel better realised on this very original production that stands as one of his best works.
Set in a dystopian near-future Japan, the story follows the young Atari (Koyu Rankin) as he searches for his dog after the species is banished to Trash Island following the outbreak of a canine flu. Teaming up with a pack of dogs who have learned to survive in this post-apocalyptic environment, they stumble upon further developments as forces move against them in the outside world and pack leader Chief (Bryan Cranston) starts to find a new sense of purpose in a non-domesticated life.
From the outset he appears to feel far more at home by crafting a story that is able to function as something approximating a traditional western film featuring talking animals (or at least one as seen through his own particular filmmaking traits), more so than his previous medium work where he was very clearly applying his own sensibilities to a pre-existing text.
It’s a visually and aurally beautiful piece of work that is marked further by the difference of worlds between the mainland and Trash Island, where the clutter and mess of this rubbish tip world are somehow made to look oddly gorgeous through the will of its designers and animators. All of which is conceived to exemplify a thoughtful sense of artificiality to the dogs, and the uncanny balancing act that is maintained between their animated facial expressions and their realistic matted and dirty fur.
Where the setting is concerned, Anderson’s passion comes through in terms of cultural points of reference that expand from a heavy Shōwa period influence over its designs and text, to specific details and signifiers that draw from Noh Theatre presentation to Alexandre Desplat’s omnipresent score filled with Taiko drums and wind instruments.
This has been a point of concern for some, regarding the appropriation of elements from another culture for the eyes and ears of western audiences. The film’s leading gimmick is that while the animals are all voiced by known English speaking actors, all of the Japanese human roles are presented without subtilties beyond the occasional dub or text underlay.
It’s understandable why this could be read as a shallow representation of a people and culture in order to make the villains seem significantly more “alien” to the audience (especially youngsters), and sadly Anderson does encroach on stereotypes even without awareness of what he’s doing. But none of it feels insincere, and Anderson’s work in the past has seen him transform many characters into caricatured versions of whatever cultural or social strata they are supposed to be representing.
The bigger issue really comes in the form of Greta Gerwig’s exchange student Tracy Walker, who couldn’t feel more out of place or at odds with the rest of the film’s construction or even its narrative. She feels like a holdover from a different Anderson work, and despite the best of intentions regarding her characters she’s incredibly one note and reductive and the film spends far too long with her and segmenting its structure further in order to justify her existence. Not to mention the “white saviour” complex that she carries with her as she charges her way into a foreign land with the intention of fixing their problems for them.
She’s the only major misstep in an otherwise spectacularly cast film, where nearly every member of its ridiculously large cast leaves an impression in even their smallest moments without having to say much at all. The standouts really do come down to the main pack, with Norton, Balaban, Murray and Goldblum all returning from past collaborations amongst others, and the dynamic they all share on screen is spectacular.
But Cranston’s Chief really does feel like the strongest component to its emotional success. As with all of Anderson’s films, there’s a significant change in tone and outlook around the halfway mark, where revelations give way to emotional beats for Chief that hit so much harder than they have any right to.
This is possibly down to the figures of the highly empathic dog models and expressions as much as the writing of key scenes and confrontations, but the closer it edges toward it’s close and delves deeper into the darkness of the story it’s pretty difficult to keep a stoic expression as it plays out. But it balances out its sadness’s with surprise, wit and some downright hilarious gross-out visual jokes involving dog ears, sushi preparation and graphic organ transplant surgery that it’s so downright bizarre and yet satisfyingly presented it has to be applauded for getting away with it.
Isle of Dogs is one of the best-looking features to be released this year, but it’s also one of the years warmest, strangest and most original conceptions as well. The cast is impeccable, as is its direction, score and animation. Even without Anderson managing to rein in some of is broader tendencies, this is one of his best and has the makings of a classic written into every picture-perfect frame.