Isle of Dogs review – a canine tale of strange beauty
With none of the archness of his Fantastic Mr Fox, Wes Anderson’s gorgeous new stop-motion tale is a funny, touching, doggy delight
Having been underwhelmed by Wes Anderson’s previous animated feature, Fantastic Mr Fox (in which the universality of Roald Dahl’s source succumbed to a whiff of arch adult smugness), I approached this latest stop-motion epic with trepidation. Indeed the very concept – sick dogs abandoned on a Japanese garbage island – seemed so self-consciously quirky that at first I thought the teaser trailer was a hoax. Yet Isle of Dogs is a delight: funny, touching and full of heartfelt warmth and wit.
With breathtaking visuals and an uncanny eye for canine behaviour, it transposes the kid-friendly charm of The Incredible Journey to the post-apocalyptic landscapes of Mad Max via the Japanese cinema of Yasujiro Ozu, Seijun Suzuki and, most notably, Akira Kurosawa.
Following a scene-setting prologue from “Before the age of the obedience”, the action (neatly chaptered, inevitably) fast-forwards to “the Japanese archipelago, 20 years in the future”. In response to outbreaks of snout fever and canine flu, dog-hating Mayor Kobayashi (modelled on the great Japanese screen actor Toshiro Mifune and voiced by co-writer Kunichi Nomura) banishes the mutts of Megasaki City to Trash Island, starting with his own household’s loyal Spots. Bereft by the loss of his best friend, Kobayashi’s gap-toothed young ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) flies to this “junktopia”, where he encounters “a pack of scary, indestructible alpha dogs” whose Anderson-esque battle cry is: “Let’s take a vote!”
In his search for Spots, Atari is variously aided by the gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum), former Doggy Chop celeb King (Bob Balaban), sports mascot Boss (Bill Murray), plucky Rex (Edward Norton) and misunderstood stray Chief (Bryan Cranston). The last of these is a Tramp who finds his Lady in the femme fatale form of show dog Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson). “I don’t sit,” warns Chief. “I bite!”
So, too, does Anderson’s film. Early on, a dog gets its ear bitten off while our human hero has a propeller bolt stuck in his bloodied head. When a character is told to “stop licking your wounds”, it’s meant literally. A squishy sushi sequence finds fish, crab and squid squirming as they are merrily dismembered. We even get a surprisingly graphic on-camera kidney transplant.
Yet despite such delightfully ghoulish details, Isle of Dogs retains a soft, slapstick heart. The regular fights are animated like a Tex Avery cartoon or a still from the Beano, with random limbs protruding from a swirling dust cloud. Like the dogs themselves, the stop-motion has an endearingly scratchy quality, a textured roughness contrasting with the symmetrical perfection of the frame. Working primarily at London’s 3 Mills Studios, Anderson’s team of animators keep things admirably physical with cotton-wool clouds and cellophane rivers. Images on TV screens are rendered as old-school, hand-drawn cartoons.
On one level, Isle of Dogs can be read as a parable of disenfranchisement, a story of people (rather than pets) being pushed to the margins. On another it’s a simple tale of a boy and his dog, a heartbreaker with overtones of the much-loved Hachikō story. There’s also an animal rights echo of Richard Adams’s The Plague Dogs in the island’s experimental escapees.
Yet interpretations are necessarily open-ended. While all barks are translated into English, the human language, much of it Japanese, is largely unsubtitled. “You don’t understand the words,” Anderson has told his Anglophone audiences, “but you understand the emotion.” Some have argued that, rather than foregrounding canine conversation, this technique casts the Japanese characters in particular – rather than humans in general – as “others”. (A foreign exchange student, voiced by Greta Gerwig, speaks English, while Frances McDormand’s Interpreter Nelson translates speeches in the grand Municipal Dome.)
Yet Anderson is clearly besotted by this world and its culture, and the dialogue does indeed have a musical cadence that makes it more comprehensible than one might imagine. Meanwhile, Alexandre Desplat’s score mixes taiko drums with weirdly jazzy woodwind, while the woozy tones of the 60s West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band rub up against Prokofiev and nods to Seven Samurai.
That rings clearest, however, is the strange beauty of these “garbage canyon” landscapes. Teaming up once more with Fantastic Mr Fox’s director of photography Tristan Oliver (whose credits include Aardman’s The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Laika’s ParaNorman), Anderson conjures shelters made from multicoloured bottles and used sake cans in which our fantastically empathetic canines take refuge. For all the disease and hardship, this is a wonderful world, full of characters in whom we can invest our trust, sympathy and love.
Mark Kermode Observer