Movies about talking dogs, puppies and pets might be something more associated with child friendly studios like Illumination Entertainment but nearly a decade after Fantastic Mr Fox, Wes Anderson has returned to stop motion animation with Isle of Dogs, a movie that in other hands could be very safe, cute and treats young children like they are still in nursery. Yet Wes Anderson has created a true family movie that spans young to old and possibly stands as his boldest entry yet.
Set in the near future, a community of canine flu infected dogs are banished to trash island, located off the coast of Japan, which is under the rule of the corrupt Mayor Kobayashi. Having spent a year on the island, these ragged and dishevelled mutts are left to scrap over bags of food with maggots crawling over them and thinking about their previous lives and owners in Japan. The dogs scrapping among themselves, robot dogs and later humans, reminds you of old cartoons as they fight under white fumes of dust with limbs flying.
The gang of dogs are tight knit, running everything through votes, but Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), a stray dog has a more cynical attitude to all their woes. In an early scrap with rival dogs over a bag of food, Chief (like Mike Tyson before him), chews off a rivals ear and kicks it into the dirt. Cranston, making his first appearance in a Wes Anderson movie, is fantastic; that aggressive voice we all recognise from Breaking Bad is recognisable and dominates the more soft and tender voices of the placid dogs voiced by Anderson regulars, Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum.
Isle of Dogs has more in common with Moonrise Kingdom than Fantastic Mr Fox, The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Royal Tenenbaums as despite such a stellar cast list, we are largely focused on Chief and his interactions with Atari and those he meets. The voice work is shared around but Cranston is the star of this piece. Each voice actor gets a moment to shine and will leave audiences asking the question after the film, “so who was your favourite dog?”, no doubt getting a different answer from each person.
Another two additions to Wes Anderson’s troupe of talent is Scarlett Johansson and Greta Gerwig. It’s always felt like a case of when not if that Gerwig would join forces with Anderson. Johansson plays a show dog, Nutmeg, and she shares a truly tender moment that might end up being one of the most romantic scenes in a film in 2018. Gerwig plays Tracey, a bushy haired, pasty and spotty exchange student in Japan who is looking to expose the Kobayashi corruption and cover up with canine flu.
One of the boldest creative choices here is Atari and the array of Japanese characters who speak in their native tongue with no subtitles and often very little translation to their words. It is left to the audience to interpret their motives, it’s a choice that is to be applauded and I am sure there was some studio notes asking if this choice was necessary but Anderson has stood his ground. Frances McDormand does provide some narration as she translates many of Mayor Kobayashi’s speeches for TV audiences.
The model work is simply incredible, the attention to detail and craft of every dog, set and prop has you marvelling. It can be easy to stop watching the doggy drama unfold on screen and just look at the work on display, repeat viewings should be encouraged just to pay tribute and focus on this. The detail just blows you away during a kidney transplant scene, the realism and the movement of these stop motion characters feels so human, it could almost have been pulled from the opening of The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Wes Anderson’s choice to base the story in Japan seems very appropriate, as Atari ventures to the Isle of Dogs to find and rescue his beloved companion and security dog, Spots evokes Samurai movies about journeys into the midst. Anderson’s colour pallet is largely red as he paints the Japan under the rule of the scheming Kobayashi in crimson reads, Orwell inspired posters pasted all over the city.
Alexandre Desplat’s score provides the beat of the movie, with the use of taiko drums that beat through the movie before exploding as the climax and final showdown of the movie nears. You’ll find your feet tapping away throughout to the original score, Wes Anderson is synonymous with his use of records from The Rolling Stones to David Bowie but that’s limited to only a few tracks here.
After being nominated for original screenplay for Moonrise Kingdom and then best picture at the Oscars for The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson could have done anything he wanted, even though he usually does and the choice he’s made to create Isle of Dogs, an entire world and Anderson’s first entry into the future is filled with so many recognisable traits but it’s a truly bold and original piece of cinema and one that is to be applauded in the world of films filled with reboots and franchise fodder.
Where will Anderson go after Isle of Dogs? Who knows? That, as always, is thrilling!