Director: Wes Anderson
Screenplay: Wes Anderson
Based on a Story by: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Greta Gerwig, Liev Schrieber
Country: USA, Germany
Running Time: 101 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Wes Anderson is possibly the 21st Century’s clearest cinematic auteur. He puts his indelible stamp on all his films, with carefully composed symmetrical shots and deadpan delivery making it clear who’s in the director’s seat. Anderson’s unique style has its detractors though. Some feel his lack of stylistic variety has lead to stale repetition and many didn’t appreciate his unusual, often shallow approach in the first place. However, Anderson’s films have enjoyed critical acclaim for the most part and his previous release, Grand Budapest Hotel, was very well received and commercially more successful than any of his previous work. He chose to follow this up with Isle of Dogs, another stop-motion animated film, after 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. I caught it at the cinema and loved it, so quickly snapped up the chance of checking out its home release.
Unlike Fantastic Mr. Fox, which was a Roald Dahl adaptation, Isle of Dogs is an original story by Anderson and some of his regular contributors. It’s set in a future Japan where an outbreak of ‘snout fever’ has been affecting dogs around the country. Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), whose ancestors we are told were shamed by a dog-loving clan centuries ago, orders all the dogs to be quarantined to ‘Trash Island’, which is exactly as its name suggests. Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito), the head of the Science Party, believes the dogs can be cured, but Kobayashi ignores his claims and gets on with the mass quarantine operation.
The mayor’s adopted son, Atari (Koyu Rankin), is deeply hurt by this as his closest friend was his dog Spots (Liev Schrieber). So, one day Atari flies a small plane over to Trash Island to find his beloved pet. He meets a rag tag band of dogs there, including the stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), who help Atari on his quest. Meanwhile, pro-dog activists, led by foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), fight to try and discover exactly what Kobayashi has planned for the country’s dogs.
It’s an immensely entertaining and (typically for Anderson) quirky story which begins quite intimately about a boy trying to find his dog, but builds to something bigger, leading to a rousing climax. It’s fast paced and economic too – always straight to the point, with little wasted time. I also found it emotionally more satisfying than much of Anderson’s work – the glisten in the eyes of the models at emotional moments helps. It still doesn’t tug the heartstrings like Disney and Pixar’s work, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The film is populated by enjoyable characters, each with their own individual quirks. They’re perhaps shallow caricatures at times, but Chief is well developed and Atari is a sympathetic protagonist, despite the language barrier. The ‘matter of fact’ dialogue is typical of Andersons work, so won’t win over any non-believers, but those with a taste for it will have much to enjoy.
As is to be expected from the director, every element of the film is meticulously designed and looks strikingly beautiful. There’s a great use of depth and symmetry and incredible attention to detail, such as little ticks on the dogs, rats scuttling around and subtle background gags and costume/set details. The characters, whose models have been hand-crafted, often have a heightened look – Kobayashi’s assistant Major-Domo (Akira Takayama) for instance has a Frankenstein’s Monster feel. The animation of the dogs is kept fairly natural though and was modelled on real animal behaviour. The set design is superb too, with clean and boldly colourful city scenes contrasting nicely with the suitably disgusting (yet still neatly arranged and symmetrical) Trash Island.
Speaking of setting, this brings me to one aspect of the film which brought much controversy on its release. Some felt Anderson’s depiction of Japan and its people was offensively stereotypical and accused the director of cultural appropriation. I wouldn’t like to take sides on this argument as I’m not Japanese so not in the position to decide what’s offensive or not. I do see where those critical of the film are coming from and the ‘white saviour’ aspect of the story could be seen as insensitive, but for the most part I didn’t feel like Anderson was pointing fun at the Japanese and clearly has a love for the country’s culture. Either way, I greatly appreciated the design choices affected by the Japanese setting. I particularly liked the inserts and backgrounds that were made to look like traditional Japanese art.
The film doesn’t just look great either, it sounds good too. I loved the music, which mixes rhythmic taiko-heavy Japanese cues with sweet, folky Western songs. There’s an incredible voice cast too. Scroll down the cast list on iMDB and you’ll see dozens of A-listers and top notch character actors even in very minor roles. It shows the respect (as well as the pool of friends) Anderson has gathered over the years.
Jaw droppingly beautiful, hugely entertaining, funny and sweet, it’s practically flawless in execution. The hints of cultural insensitivity prevent me from giving it a full 5 star rating, but it may well still prove to be one of Anderson’s best films or at least his most enjoyable. It’s bound to be very near the top of my list of films of the year, that’s for sure.
Isle of Dogs is out now on Digital Download, Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the film looks and sounds fantastic.
There are a handful of special features included in the set:
– Isle of Dogs Cast Interviews
– An Ode to Dogs
– Magasaki City and Trash Island
– Weather and Elements
- Image Gallery
– Theatrical Trailer
– Character art cards
The featurettes are disappointingly short, but entertaining and give you a wonderful, if brief, glimpse behind the scenes of the production. It gives you a good idea of how much time and effort went into making the film.