Having only seen Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, I can hardly say I’m overly familiar with the works of Wes Anderson. But even with such limited knowledge of his output, Anderson has such a distinctive visual style and tells such “quirky” stories that I’m confident, even if I was drunk off my face, I could still tell his work apart from others.
But it’s because of this repetition of themes and style that Anderson tends to drastically change the background elements between each film. For example, his last four outings have taken us on epic journeys through India, the English Countryside, 1930s Eastern Europe, and a small New England island.
But with Isle of Dogs, Anderson seems to have really set the bar almost out of reach. By choosing the world of Japan to set his story in, he immediately invites a far greater scrutiny when it comes to cultural sensitivity. Add to that the fact he felt the medium of animation was what was best to tell this tale; and you automatically get comparisons to his critically acclaimed Fantastic Mr. Fox.
So… clearly no pressure then.
In the near future, an incurable “dog flu” has ravaged the city of Megasaki. In response, its leader Mayor Kobayoshi (Kunichi Nomura) has banished all dogs to an island off the coast of Japan. Alas, not even the Mayor’s nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin) is excluded, as his bodyguard dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), is also sent away.
Nicknamed “Trash Island”, the entire place is covered (as you might expect) in trash and feral dogs. But that doesn’t stop Atari, as he chooses to build his own small plane to try and find Spots.
Crash-landing on the island, Atari is met by a group of dogs: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray) and their leader, Chief (Bryan Cranston). Together they set out on a journey to try and reunite a boy with his best friend.
While Isle of Dogs is hardly unique in its choice to use stop-motion animation, I am hard pressed to think of another film where said animation could be considered both simplistic and complex. That may sound a tad contradictory; but it is in fact a sign of how elegantly Anderson has blended the child-like images of the animal kingdom, with the more intricate portrayals of Japanese culture.
From the vast debris-strewn landscape of Trash Island, to the more old-school and cartoony delight of fighting dogs being hidden in a haze of clouds; the production designers (led by Paul Harrod and Adam Stockhausen) have crafted a world that, not only gives a sense of gusto to Anderson’s quirky script, but also helps breath life into the already fine work of the voice artists.
Said voice artists are mostly made up of Anderson Alumni; ranging from F. Murray Abraham’s all-seeing dog, Jupiter; to Frances McDormand’s Japanese-English translator. But the real plaudits belong to newcomer Bryan Cranston as Chief, the leader of the dog pack and reluctant helper of Atari. Imagine the hopelessness of early Walter White mixed in with flashes of anger from Heisenberg. And that’s only a small example of how well Cranston meshes himself with the material.
Unfortunately the same plaudits don’t quite apply to the script. With so many balls to juggle some characters, in particular the female ones, end up feeling underdeveloped (such as Scarlett Johansson’s showdog, Nutmeg.) In particular there’s a sense that, without the predetermined structure given to him in Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson has allowed his imagination to go a little too wild, resulting in a film that is overly long in places.
Of course many commentators have already mentioned the problems of cultural appropriation in that Anderson, a white man, is directing a film steeped in Japanese culture. Truth be told though, there is nothing offensive about the choices he makes, but rather confusion as to why he chose Japan in the first place. While the background is dressed up in Japanese commodities, such as sushi and sumo wrestlers, there ends up being very little in the characters or the core of the story that’s inherently Japanese. It could have easily been set off the coast of any major country.
Indeed the choice of Japan is particularly confusing considering the lack of voice or agency given to the Japanese characters. The film even comes dangerously close to the “white saviour” narrative in Greta Gerwig’s character, a teenage American exchange student / protester who is attempting to arouse the apathetic Japanese populace. Why this character couldn’t be Japanese (or even just Asian) is rather puzzling. (Though a little bit of me thinks that maybe Anderson was intending to present this character as an interfering busybody rather than as any sort of rescuer.)
There’s a lot to love in Isle of Dogs when it comes to its design or artistic sensibilities. Hell, Wes Anderson’s style is almost unrivaled when it comes to modern day cinema. But, when considering the rambling nature of the script, there’s also a feeling that Anderson may have relied a little too much on style and not quite enough on substance.
Images © Fox Searchlight via IMDb,