Wes Anderson, we can credibly speculate based on the title of his latest film, loves dogs. In Isle of Dogs, running with this clear affection for man’s best friend, he takes the strengths of his first animated outing, Fantastic Mister Fox, and improves on them all, while telling a charming tale in a dystopic Japan.
Megasaki, a fictional metropolitan sprawl, has been gripped by anti-dog fervour after a rise in canine diseases, and its tyrannical mayor Kobayashi shortly orders that all mutts are confined to the evocatively named Trash Island, a floating landfill. Even Spots, loyal bodyguard dog to Kobayashi’s ward Atari is sent away, to fend for himself on this nightmarish isle. Months later, the determined Atari sneaks away to the isle of dogs to try to find his beloved pet and keeper.
It is a motley crew of furred friends that he finds instead, though. Democratically-minded, they are a collective helmed in martial matters by Bryan Cranston’s Chief, a self-confessed biter of feeding hands. An outrageous voice cast is filled out by such luminaries as Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Greta Gerwig (there are far more stars than these). These canines speak in colloquial English, versus the variously subtitled, translated and interpreted Japanese of most of the human characters. This divide has been criticised as an alienation of the Japanese figures, but such interpretation feels cynical – the tone of Isle of Dogs is relentlessly reverential culturally.
As this quintessentially Anderson story unfolds, with father figures absent, rebellious sons learning responsibility, and oddball groups finding common ground, the sheer technique of the film’s realisation is jaw-dropping. This is stop-motion animation at its best – with the impression of constant movement and a certain quality that openly admits its handmadeness. So tactile are the models and sets that you can practically see the human digits moving them between frames, which bizarrely contributes to the believability of what’s on show.
As Atari and his band of dogs move through the world, Anderson ekes humour from all the elements of this already-amusing premise. From the dogs’ lack of Japanese comprehension to the technocracy of Kobayashi’s evil cabal of crooked bureaucrats, the jokes are constant, and often purely visual. The caper continues, the stakes do escalate pleasingly, and while the plotting is never genuinely surprising, it satisfies with its intense cuteness and micro scale of invention. Recent Oscar-winner Alexandre Desplat’s soundtrack is a tremendous and momentum-building accompaniment.
Isle of Dogs is utterly delightful, and completely delectable. It is made with an attention to detail and care for its visual identity that most filmmakers wouldn’t aspire to. Its themes are not overly weighty, though earnest think-pieces will surely disagree in time, but its sense of heart easily shines through.