Kieran Rae reviews Wes Anderson’s latest adventure Isle of Dogs showing at Royal William Yard on Thursday 13 September as part of our Open Air Cinema season. VIP and Standard tickets are available to book online.
“Every day that we were working on this movie, we’d see something in the newspaper and we said, ‘That is what we’re writing about.’” – Wes Anderson
Sat watching one of the many expansive, arresting horizon shots of Isle of Dogs’ uncannily entrancing ‘Trash Island’, I’m reminded of the breathtaking work of Roger Deakins in last year’s magnificent Blade Runner 2049. Hearing the cantankerous growl of Bryan Cranston coming out of a stop motion mongrel takes my breath even further as I’m reminded this is an animation.
It’s an absurd comparison to make, perhaps fitting for a film belonging to one of cinema’s finest absurdist directors. Wes Anderson’s latest feature is a love letter to Japanese cinema, namely Akira Kurosawa. It’s near-future dystopian Japan. Dog flu is rife, threatening to spread to humans. Mayor of Megasaki City, Kenji Kobayashi, banishes all dogs to Trash Island, the eponymous junkyard ‘Isle of Dogs’. It’s a thin veil for timely xenophobia of, well, another species. And with that, the stage is set for the feature. Actually, not quite; it’s when the mayor’s nephew, Atari, crash lands on the Island in search of his long-banished dog, but instead finds a ragtag group of savvy mongrels, that the story kick into gear. And what a ragtag group.
Rex, King, Boss, Duke’s barks are, as the film itself puts it, translated dutifully by Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum respectively. You can’t blame Wes Anderson for sticking with his familiar cast when it so often works. They are led by their grizzled Alpha, Chief, newcomer to Anderson films Bryan Cranston. It’s no surprise that this experienced voice cast pull of these dumpster-experienced mutts with effortless fickleness and comedic timing.
Amusingly, while we’re given the benefit of dog-speak translation, Anderson isn’t so generous when it comes to the Japanese dialogue that makes up the film’s prominent B-plot. It’s a B-plot (and C-plot, in fact) that moves as fast and as furiously as the dialogue and editing that carry it. It’s intentionally alienating to the Western audience; with the brief thirty seconds we get to comprehend what’s happening, the film’s return to the calmer depictions of apocalyptic beauty as the dogs loyally track down Atari’s best friend is a welcome return to the familiar. We understand, and perhaps empathise, more with the dogs than we do with the humans.
As playful as ever with his visuals, Anderson’s beautiful cinematography is complimented with his trademark ingenuity with the frame. Illusions with depth of field carry the plot forward with great pace, and Chief’s reluctance to be as subservient to Atari as his fellow friends is excellently shown not spoken by his frequent absence from not just the group, but the screen entirely. This is always followed by a comedic pan back to him, laughs accentuated by the whimsical 2D deception of 3D stop motion figures. Indeed, Kurosawa’s reputation for motion storytelling proves harmonious with Anderson’s oddly symmetrical and formal camera movement.
It doesn’t all bark up the right tree. The screenplay makes character development jumps to fit with its breezy plot that could’ve done with a little more nuance and can’t exactly be forgiven as part of Anderson’s signature whimsy – passing weaker story arcs off for playful quaintness isn’t quite enough to excuse their thin threads. There’s even a D-plot introduced towards the end of the film, and though seeing it on a collision course with A, B, and C is thrilling, a more ruthless screenwriter may have made the chop of some late coming characters to avoid the clutter.
But when they do all finally collide, after ninety minutes of political hate ticking against the love of one boy and his dog, we perhaps see why Anderson chooses to make us understand the canines more than ourselves. Humans cast out, marginalise, and deem the mutts, as the film puts it, ‘the underdog dogs’. It’s ruthless, inhuman, and it’s really happening – Anderson said it himself, seeing it in the newspapers every day. It is the togetherness of the animals, on the outskirts of society that restore humanity. As a final tribute to Japanese culture, this point is driven home in a haiku called ‘Atari’s Lantern.’ It begins:
“Whatever happened to man’s best friend…?’
In an anxious, divisive, and abrasive world, perhaps it’s the newspaper headlines that should start borrowing from Isle of Dogs.