Perhaps more than any other filmmaker right now, or over the last few decades, even if you aren’t fluent in cinema, you can tell when you are watching a Wes Anderson picture. The man’s signature style has become so synonymous with quirk and quality, not just for the curious aesthetic style and whimsical sensibility that each story possesses, but also the recurring cast of performers with whom he chooses to work. It’s a gang that every actor wishes they were part of, and in his latest effort, Isle Of Dogs, a mixture of new and old Anderson favourites come together to lend their voices to his second animation.
Set in a dystopian Japan, the film tells the story of Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), a twelve year old boy who ventures to Trash Island in search of his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber), who, along with all other dogs, has been banished amid a frenzy of anti-canine hysteria whipped up by the sinister new mayor of Megasaki City. Helping Atari on his quest are Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), a pack of eccentric and endearing Trash Island dogs who bring a real sense of Stand By Me meets Homeward Bound-like adventure and bonding to the proceedings.
The first thing to say is that Isle Of Dogs is a complete visual treat. Picking up where he left off in 2009’s brilliant Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s unique take on stop-motion animation is distinct and enchanting. Whether in the forefront or in the background, there is always something interesting going on visually, and the intricate nature of the design is something that really rewards repeat viewing.
For a seemingly whimsical tale of a young boy searching for his dog, the film covers a whole host of diverse themes from love and friendship to political corruption and murder, and it is much more ambitious than one might expect in the breadth and depth of its story telling. The wonderful deadpan humour that exemplifies Anderson’s live action work loses none of its charismatic yet jarring edge. The film has a number of laugh out loud moments to help punctuate the more steady rhythm of dry wit that remains a constant feature across the narrative, and much like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle Of Dogs feels like one of the filmmaker’s more accessible pictures in terms of the off-beat humour for which he is known.
Questions have cultural appropriation and sensitivity have been raised by some critics concerning the Japanese context of the film, and whilst I don’t necessarily share some of the same concerns, there is a glaring inclusion of the ‘white saviour’ trope in the form of a character voiced by Greta Gerwig. An American character, placed unconvincingly in the midst of this Asian dystopia feels a little too ‘forced audience surrogate’ for my taste, and feels a tad contrived in light of the more nuanced devices and techniques that Anderson uses. It’s not a perfect film, and personally I’d go for Fantastic Mr. Fox if you’re looking for the best animation in the filmmaker’s catalogue, but there’s no denying that Isle Of Dogs is an unusual and enigmatic treat with a pleasantly mature edge.
The bulk of memorable voice work is shared amongst the performers breathing character in to the gang of Trash Island dog sidekicks. As group leader Chief, Bryan Cranston is a new addition to the ‘Anderson set’, but his deadpan delivery with an slice of sincerity when needed is just what the doctor ordered. The likes of Bill Murray, Ed Norton and Jeff Goldblum are all at their quirky and eccentric best, and even in animated form the chemistry that the actors shares makes for really enjoyable listening.
Alongside the leading voice performances, there are several high profile cameos to listen out for including contributions by Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, Anjelica Huston and even Yoko Ono! The plethora of distinctive voices adds another level of fun to the film, matching its aesthetic flare with a top notch list of stars who want to showcase their quirkier sides.
Overall, Isle Of Dogs is an unusual and interesting viewing experience. If you are not well versed in the work of Wes Anderson, then the film might come across as somewhat detached or perhaps too clinical for its, at times, very emotionally charged plot, but the signature off-beat style is something to embrace rather than fight against. Don’t expect the swell scores and twee tenderness of a more familiar Disney animal adventure. Instead, get ready to be inducted in to a world and imagination that is so vivid and stylised that it’s impossible not to be won over.