As 2009’s Fantastic Mr Fox shows, when Wes Anderson vacates reality for the malleable universe of stop motion, all bets are off. His latest animated feature Isle of Dogs submerges its audience into a whimsical, but sobering dystopian future. The Isle of Dogs sits just off the coast of Japan, which has been supposedly ravaged by a tsunamic plague of ‘dog flu’ and ‘snout fever’. As a result, human society has turned its back on its dependable canine companions, shipping them off to the desolate Trash Island to see out the remainder of their days melancholic and masterless.
Anderson doesn’t conceal this. Isle of Dogs is not lit by the primary colours familiarly associated with The Grand Budapest Hotel or The Royal Tenenbaums. The tone is downcast understandably even though our underdogs are still wholly capable of melting hearts. Boiled down to its most basic bones, Isle of Dogs is a quest/adventure flick. Determined 12-year old boy Atari crash lands on Trash Island in search of his prized pooch Spots, the first dog to be exiled. The canine crackdown is orchestrated by the Orwellian Mayor Kobayashi, who sports a startling feline-themed tattoo on his back a la Ben Affleck.
“It’s here, in the mastery of the mood swing, perpetually pivoting from the dismal to the delightful, that Anderson strikes gold amongst the clutter and rubbish of Trash Island”
Stylistically, Isle of Dogs is another stuffed crust of complex pop culture, filled to the brim with both eastern and western influences. Early on, Anderson pastiches Katsushika Hokusai’s iconic Great Wave off Hanagawa with an arresting image of a group of canines caught in the wave just as it begins to curl back in on itself. Composer Alexandre Desplat, fresh off his Oscar win for The Shape of Water, provides an agile accompaniment to Anderson’s visuals. Desplat switches between intense taiko drumming, amplifying the tension throughout, and a waggish flute finale that hearkens back to Moonrise Kingdom.
The voice cast has less importance here but that is by no means a complaint. Anderson has clearly put his emphasis on his famously, and intricately, symmetrical backdrops and the mannerisms of his respective canine creations. The central posse of pooches, voiced by Bryan Cranston, Bob Balaban, Ed Norton, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum, all have their moments in the spotlight. Goldblum’s Duke brings a comical counterpoint to the narrative, often informing his cohorts with the gossip he’s eavesdropped from other dogs on the island. Elsewhere, Scarlett Johansson’s show dog Nutmeg crucially reminds Cranston’s Chief that humans are still capable of being loving and Tilda Swinton plays a ‘psychic’ pug named Oracle. However, plaudits must go to Harvey Keitel, whose moving cameo as the head of a rumoured cannibal group of dogs is a scene-stealing performance of Crufts level proportions.
It’s here, in the mastery of the mood swing, perpetually pivoting from the dismal to the delightful, that Anderson strikes gold amongst the clutter and rubbish of Trash Island. There are the clouds of dust kicked up by the furry fisticuffs that recall endless Saturday mornings watching Cartoon Network. And then there is the desperate state of the dogs themselves. Forced to live off of maggot-infested scraps and subjected to the experiments of the long defunct Megasaki City corporations that were based on Trash Island, many of the dogs are not only gaunt but resemble war veterans with their missing limbs and visible scars. Even for the ever-ambitious Wes Anderson, the concoction seems more potent and more daring than the previous entries in his faultless filmography.