“Whatever happened to man’s best friend”, a character asks early on in Wes Anderson’s Isle Of Dogs. Few moments in Anderson’s filmography suggest that he’s an animal lover, but his second foray into stop-motion animation, following his similarly animal-centric adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, often has more sympathy with its canine characters than the people.
In the near future, the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki is plagued by dog flu, prompting the anti-dog Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) to exile the city’s entire population of pooches to Trash Island, despite opposition by his political and intellectual rivals in the Science Party. As a symbolic gesture, the first exile is Spots (Liev Schreiber), who belongs to the mayor’s 12 year old ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin).
On the island, a pack of American accented dogs – Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) – are living on rubbish, fighting other dogs and bickering among themselves for survival. So, not all of the pack are happy with helping Atari when he crash lands on the island on a reckless solo mission to rescue Spots, but with a dastardly conspiracy back home threatening their very existence, there’s not much else for them to do.
It sometimes feels like I’m the only person in the world who didn’t get on with Fantastic Mr. Fox, so it’s a relief that I really liked Isle Of Dogs. With that caveat in mind, it’s interesting how Anderson’s run of films since then have felt more adventurous and enjoyable to me, from the runaway romance of Moonrise Kingdom to the sprawling Tintin-style intrigue of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and if he hadn’t already done it, the prospect of him adapting Mr. Fox might be more appealing now.
With an original story cooked up by Anderson, Nomura and regular collaborators Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzmann, this is the most strikingly imaginative feature in the director’s recent run. From the story to the setting, everything feels wildly original, without also feeling like a departure from his idiosyncratic style.
It may be the closest thing he’s ever made to a kids’ movie outside of Fantastic Mr. Fox (and was all that existential guff supposed to be for kids?), but there’s much less consideration of young audiences here. It’s a much scrappier film, complete with violence and injury detail from very early on, when one dog winds up on the receiving end of a Mike Tyson-esque fighting tactic, and regular swearing reinstated, instead of the “cuss”ing of his previous animated effort. We don’t often get to say this, but it’s definitely at the upper limit of its PG certificate.
That’s not to say that kids won’t enjoy it – it’s funny, frantic and boisterous stuff, capturing the same manic energy as The Grand Budapest Hotel and redirecting it into animated anarchy. It feels of a pair with Mr. Fox thanks to the deliberately scrungy design, but improved by the increased variety of locations and characters and perhaps because Anderson has made one of these before.
It’s basically a political thriller for 12 year olds, with the corrupt government’s treatment of animals serving as a fairly vague and all-encompassing allegory for oppressed people, but delivered with trademark deadpan humour. The story grows ever more ludicrous as assassinations, cannibalism and even robots enter the fray, but the film gracefully handles some massive shifts in tone with a consistently entertaining cast of characters to take us through them.
In addition to the five main good boys (of whom Cranston’s cantankerous stray and Goldblum’s gossiphound are undoubtedly the highlights), we meet dogs who sound like Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham and Harvey Keitel. Between this and Mr. Fox, it definitely feels like Anderson likes animals more when they’re essentially avatars for his usual company of actors, and the mildly misanthropic tone of the story probably wouldn’t seem as problematic if it weren’t set in Japan.
The film is steeped in Japanese culture, but most of the unsubtitled Japanese characters are antagonists. Frances McDormand and Courtney B. Vance each act as an English-speaking chorus in different ways, but the prominence of an American exchange student voiced by Greta Gerwig has led some to criticise Anderson for patronising the culture he’s portraying, rather than celebrating it.
That said, all of the director’s more adventurous films of late have been set in fictional locales, from the American island of New Penzance to the pre-war European republic of Zubrowka. Viewed as an addition to the United States of Wes Anderson, the creation of Megasaki is sincere enough even when it comes across as tourism – the production design is endlessly creative and Alexandre Desplat’s minimalist score is genuinely delightful.
Isle Of Dogs is a bewitchingly weird animated drama, landing somewhere between a Kurosawa film and a Boy’s Own adventure. It looks great and if you’re on board with its dark and quirky style, then there are a lot of laughs, but it’s the underlying sincerity of this one that sets it apart. The scraggly edges make it more Scrufts than Crufts, but it’s a good film about good dogs nonetheless.
Isle Of Dogs is in UK cinemas now.