Visionary director Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs tells the story of Atari Kobayashi, 12-year-old ward to corrupt Mayor Kobayashi. When all the canine pets of Megasaki City are exiled to a vast Trash Island, Atari sets off in search of his bodyguard-dog, Spots. With the assistance of his newfound mongrel friends, he begins an epic journey that will decide the fate and future of the entire Prefecture.
A starry cast, deadpan humour and deft nods to Japanese cinema make this animated film an unusually delightful dystopia.
There’s something about Berlin that suits a Wes Anderson film and vice versa. A few years back the Hotel Adlon, next to the Brandenburg Gate, boasted a huge, gorgeous scale model of the Grand Budapest Hotel in the lobby. This year most of what is a long and illustrious Isle of Dogs voice cast list – Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Greta Gerwig, Tilda Swinton – has turned up in person to promote Anderson’s second stop-animated film (after Fantastic Mr. Fox). The belief and backing is there, I assume, because it’s such a winningly affectionate and delightfully detailed dystopian fable.
Set 20 years in the future, mostly on an island off the coast of an imaginary Japan, Isle of Dogs takes pollution and disease as normal, and a war between cat-lovers and dog-lovers as ancient and traditional. In Megasaki city, the cat-lovers have the upper hand, and with outbreaks of Snout Fever and Dog Flu rife, Mayor Kobayashi (deep voiced by Kunichi Nomura) is able to pass a decree exiling all dogs to Trash Island – literally an open waste facility. Soon the dogs are scrapping over scraps, not least the informal, putatively democratic gang of Alpha Dogs made up of diffident leader Rex (Edward Norton), former sports mascot Boss (Bill Murray), former advert-dog King (Balaban), arch gossip Duke (Goldblum) and, the stray loner Chief (Cranston) who warns all with cute menace that “I bite.”
When Mayor Kobayashi’s teenage ward Atari crashlands on the island looking for his former pet Spot, a double narrative unfolds wherein the Alphas and Atari go on a quest to find ‘Dog Zero’, while the Mayor sends robot attack dogs to retrieve Atari. Meanwhile on the mainland righteous exchange student Tracy Walker (Gerwig) works with her student newspaper Daily Manifesto to find the Snout Fever serum that Kobayashi has suppressed.
Brimful of brilliant, subtly inflected deadpan face-offs of one kind or another – often between the Dogs, whose barking we hear as English, and the Japanese, whose speech requires on-screen interpretation for the rest of us (and often we don’t get it) – Isle of Dogs is a big leap up from Mr. Fox. The voice work and puppetry is combined in compelling fashion, giving the big close-ups of these lovingly mangy critters something more than Creature Comforts personality – just wait until you get to meet Gondo, the affronted leader of the island’s aboriginal dogs, who briefly occasions some of Harvey Keitel’s best work of recent years.
Anderson’s visualisations, and the lines that he and his writing team (Nomura, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwatzman) come up with, draw at times on Japanese cinema classics (particularly Kurosawa Akira’s 1960s crime films), pop culture and on traditional woodblock prints in the most joyful way. Given that Isle of Dogs was conceived, says Anderson, over the last four and half years, it’s hard to say if its depiction of Mayor Kobayashi is meant to reflect in politics closer to Anderson’s home, but it works that way if you want it to.
And as with all of the director’s films, you should try not to read too much about it, since the pleasure is so much in encountering the gags – the occasional adroit use of haikus, for instance – as they happen on screen. In this flu-ridden winter, it’s also great to spend time with such charming sufferers of snout-fever.
Subtitles:English, French, Spanish