“Isle of Dogs”

Isle of Dogs

I HAD THE unusual but not unpleasant experience of watching Isle of Dogs, the latest effort from hipster favourite Wes Anderson, while eating a breakfast of croissants, cappuccino and orange juice in a cinema in Amsterdam, a city that caters rather well to the director’s pronounced Europhilia even if, among the lopsided canal-side houses, symmetry is hard to find.

But Isle of Dogs, unlike Anderson’s last feature-length film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is notably lacking in pastel-pinks and European modernist interiors. Instead, the location is a dystopian future Japan, where Megasaki City Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), the authoritarian descendent of a dog-hating ancestor, signs a decree banishing all canines to Trash Island in the wake of a dog-flu virus outbreak. The first exile––the “patient zero”––is Spots (Liev Schreiber), whose owner, Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), is the orphaned nephew and ward of the mayor.


The location is a dystopian future Japan, where Megasaki City Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), the authoritarian descendent of a similarly dog-hating ancestor, signs a decree banishing all canines to Trash Island in the wake of a dog-flu virus outbreak.


But the 12-year-old Atari has other plans, and in an attempt to find and rescue Spots he fashions a small biplane and crash-lands on Trash Island, where he is discovered by a pack of dogs: Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). What these dogs truly want is to be reunited with their owners. The exception is of course Chief, a grizzled stray, whose experience on the streets of Megasaki is invaluable in this cacotopian wasteland, even if it comes at the cost of understanding the dog’s relationship with the human. Nevertheless, at the insistence of a female pure-breed named Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), Chief and the pack decide to set off with Atari and help him find his dog.

In many ways, Isle of Dogs strikes you as Anderson’s most ambitious effort to date. It is, before we forget, a dystopian science-fiction film, technically speaking, that is also, somehow, a stop-motion animated deadpan comedy in the style of Fantastic Mr. Fox, and subject to all the usual idiosyncrasies of a Wes Anderson film, to say nothing of the attention to detail. (Anderson has himself said that he isn’t “particularly bothered or obsessed with detail”, which makes him either falsely modest or exceedingly talented, or both.) But it’s easy not to keep in mind the ambition of the project, because, like almost of all his films, Isle of Dogs is so playfully quaint and fanciful that it creates the impression that it was created unhurriedly and without much strain.


In many ways Isle of Dogs strikes you as Anderson’s most ambitious effort to date. It is, before we forget, a dystopian science-fiction film, technically speaking, that is also, somehow, a stop-motion animated deadpan comedy in the style of Fantastic Mr. Fox and subject to all the usual idiosyncrasies you might find in a Wes Anderson film, to say nothing of the attention to detail.


What’s immediately obvious is that Isle of Dogs shows Anderson at his funniest. The dialogue between the central “pack” and the tiny figure of the rather alarmed-looking pug Oracle (Tilda Swinton), who can understand television and is therefore a visionary in dog terms, contain much of the film’s humour, but it’s amusing throughout in a way that makes you smile if not exactly tilt your head back, open your mouth, and laugh until your sides are sore. There are funnier moments in other Anderson films––the attempted arrest of Gustave H. in The Grand Budapest Hotel springs to mind––but rarely is Anderson so consistently funny.

This is to the credit not only of Anderson but to his collaborator and fellow writer Roman Coppola, who pitched in, so to say, on Moonrise Kingdom, The Darjeeling Limited and Anderson’s first stop-motion animated effort, Fantastic Mr. Fox. The script, which is predictably peppered with plays-on-words (“Stop licking your wounds!” yells Chief, and the camera turns to Duke, licking his wounds) is lean enough, and the dog jokes age but don’t, to my surprise, quite get old as the film nears its conclusion, which is altogether pretty satisfying. Jason Schwarztman and Kunichi Nomura, who voices Mayor Kobayashi, are also credited as writers.


If The Grand Budapest Hotel was an homage of sorts to the prolific Austrian writer Stefan Zweig and the pre-war European aesthetic, then Isle of Dogs evinces Anderson’s attraction to the Japanese aesthetic. From taiko drummers to cherry blossom and haiku poetry, there are scenes in the film which seem to play with Japanese culture (or, more accurately, an outsider’s understanding of Japanese culture) and do little else.


If The Grand Budapest Hotel was an homage of sorts to the prolific Austrian writer Stefan Zweig and the pre-war European aesthetic, then Isle of Dogs evinces Anderson’s attraction to the Japanese aesthetic. From taiko drummers to cherry blossom and haiku poetry, there are scenes in the film which seem to play with Japanese culture (or, more accurately, an outsider’s understanding of Japanese culture) and do little else. This can quickly spill over into crass stereotyping, but here there is something like affection that shines through. (The nominal villain, Mayor Kobayashi, is even modelled on Toshiro Mifune, the actor and collaborator of master-director Akira Kurosawa.)

Isle of Dogs is a typical Wes Anderson film, which is to say it’s very good, even if there are some who instinctively bridle at his quirkiness and artistic proclivities. But even for the zealot it isn’t a perfect film. There is a perceptible lull in the third quarter, though that’s hardly unique to Isle of Dogs; most films could benefit from more ruthless editing. I’m also sure I’m not the only one who isn’t quite so charmed by stop-motion animation as Anderson is, and I feel moreover that it makes physical comedy (picture once again, if you will, Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave H. running through the lobby) difficult to pull off. And then there’s the small matter that, if forced to choose at gunpoint, I would come down on the side of the cat rather than the dog, and I therefore resent the idea that there is something inherently evil about felines. Some people fundamentally distrust intelligence. But Isle of Dogs is a welcome effort and worthy––almost worthy––of its slightly hysterical fanfare.

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