When not making live action films like The Grand Budapest Hotel, director Wes Anderson has found a perfect mode of expression for his singular imagination, in the form of stop-motion animation. Anderson’s first foray into stop-motion, The Fantastic Mr Fox, was an absolute treat. His second is even better.
Isle of Dogs is set in Japan 20 years in the future. An outbreak of ‘snout-fever’ is afflicting the dogs of Megasaki City. Under the pretext of the feared spread of the disease to humans – but really because of his cat-loving dynasty’s centuries-old grudge against dogs – the corrupt Mayor Kobayashi exiles the city’s canine population to an off-shore garbage dump, Trash Island.
Six months later, the hounds are in a sorry state – bleary-eyed, sneezing, exhausted, starving, forced to fight each other for scraps. Then a 12-year-old boy, Atari, flies onto the island in a stolen plane, hoping to rescue his own dog, Spots. Atari enlists the help of a ragtag group of hounds to help his search.
However, the lad happens to be the mayor’s ward, and Kobayashi sends his forces – including, ironically, robot dogs – to retrieve the boy. Meanwhile, back in the city, an American exchange student, Tracy, starts to uncover the truth about snout fever.
The outline barely covers the richness of Anderson’s script. There’s a tussle for leadership of the dogs between Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), a stray with no love of humans, and Rex (Edward Norton), a conciliatory chap who will never lose his inner pet; a burgeoning romance between Chief and the former show-dog Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson); oracle dogs, cannibal dogs, political intrigue and ladles of comedy. Anderson also touches on serious themes, particularly intolerance; the mayor’s intentions for Trash Island have the unmistakable stench of genocide.
Yet it’s in the development of the script where the near-genius comes in, with a degree of detail in the narration and animation that is mindboggling.
At the outset, we’re cutely told that ‘all barks will be rendered into English,’ but that humans, namely Japanese, will be translated only through interpreters as they occur in the story – such as UN-style interpreters at political events. It means listening to a certain amount of untranslated Japanese, and at times information coming thick and fast from different directions. But it works. And it’s refreshing for a family film to be so narratively sophisticated.
At the same time, Anderson shades his world with a wealth of Japanese culture and iconography – Haiku, Sumo wrestling, Taiko drumming, woodblock prints and, of course, cinema, notably the films of Akira Kurosawa. It may gall some that it takes an American girl to galvanise the Japanese into action against the mayor, but there’s no doubting the sincerity of the cultural homage.
Beyond the excellence of the stop-motion puppets, visually it never ceases to surprise and impress, whether it’s the lone flea that makes its way around a dog’s fur or the detailed preparation of a sushi meal, the tears welling up in both canine and human eyes or the hilarious fight scenes that erupt in a flurry of cotton wool, the intricate mapping of the island or the dramatic, deep focus compositions that a live-action director would die for.
As with The Fantastic Mr Fox, Anderson employs actors whose natural intonations chime with his deadpan wit. Alongside regulars (Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton), Cranston is great value as the scruffy hero of the hour. The Japanese cast includes a certain Yoko Ono, who can’t be missed, since her character is named Assistant-Scientist Yoko-Ono. Such is the fabulous world of Wes Anderson.
This review first appeared in The Sunday Herald