Choose any Wes Anderson film and it’s safe to say you know what you’re in for. Whether you consider his work kitschy, quirky, weird, wonderful or simply just a little bit twee, you can guarantee that you’re going to be watching something quite unique over the next hour or two. You can also expect to see a whole lot of symmetry going on, likely with a gentle melancholic backing track that drills into your skull and refuses to leave for several weeks at a time.
Personally, I love it. Wes Anderson’s style scratches that itch of comfortable weirdness that is pretty hard to find anywhere else, though I can appreciate why anyone else might be turned off by it. That said, with Isle Of Dogs (2018), Anderson’s latest film, I think there is more than enough to intrigue even the most cynical audiences.
A mostly stop-motion story, Isle Of Dogs tells the tale of a group of stray dogs left to fend for themselves after being abandoned by a future dystopian Japan. Yep. I’m in. And you should be, too.
Why Should I?
Alright, here we go. Legends tell of a time when dogs roamed free. Free of obedience, free of collars. Sickened by this, a group of men under the influence of a bunch of bastard cats decided enough was enough, and set out to slaughter the wild dogs of the land. Sicked by what he saw, a young Samurai child attacked the cat-loving human leader, decapitating him and ushering in a new era of dog-human relationships. Under their human master’s watchful eye, the dogs of the world multiplied and excelled.
Fast forward to the modern day, however, and there’s a problem. A rampant dog flu virus has spread across the canine population of Japan, and despite the efforts to develop a cure by Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito), the mayor of Megasaki City (which, incidentally, is an incredible name) Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) declares that all dogs in the city are to be banished to Trash Island, where they must fend for themselves. To show faith, Mayor Kobayashi sends his household’s dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), to be the first dog sent to the island.
(I should point out here that Isle Of Dogs declares at the opening of the film that all humans were to speak their native language, while all dogs will be translated to speak directly to the audience. Just in case you though Mr Schreiber et al. were going to be barking throughout the story.)
Spots is soon transported to the island, along with the trash and waste of Megasaki City, where he is soon joined by an ever-growing population of dogs – all of which are visibly suffering from the wasting, irritable symptoms of dog flu.
Among them, a group of dogs survive together as a democratic gang – each able to take the lead with the vote of the others. Namely, they are Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray) and Chief (Bryan Cranston). We are introduced to them as the pack square up against another pack, vying for the mouldy contents of a sack of landfill. After initiating the fight, our pack of leaders soon win – after tearing the ear from one of the other dogs and throwing it to the rats. Be warned, a kids movie this ain’t.
While bemoaning their lot in life, the dogs are suddenly distracted by the arrival of a small plane overhead. Before their very eyes it wobbles and shakes, then plummets to the ground. At the crash site, the dogs find a young human – or Master, as Rex puts it – who is injured, but alive. The young boy is revealed to be Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) – the Mayor of Megasaki City’s great nephew and ward. Atari is searching for his dog, Spots, who was taken from him while Atari was in a coma.
The pack agree to help Atari, with the exception of Chief, who as a former stray, resents the idea of taking orders from a human. It doesn’t take long before a search-and-rescue team arrive to take Atari home, but the pack is quick to defend him, attacking the team as Chief faces off against a mysteriously mechanical canine that has been tracking the group. After fending off the humans, the pack and Atari soon set out across the island to find the path to finding Spots. Chief, still resentful of the rest of the pack, is finally spurred into action after meeting a pure-bred show dog called Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), who reminds Chief of how important a child’s love for his dog can be.
Meanwhile, back in Megasaki City, Professor Watanabe succeeds in finding a cure for the dog flu with his assistant… Yoko Ono (played by, yes, Yoko Ono). However, it quickly becomes clear that no one in power cares – and his research is quickly hushed up. As the news of Atari going missing – and seemingly being kidnapped by a pack of wild dogs – hits the mainstream, things quickly begin to escalate. This does not escape the notice of Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), an American school child on an exchange programme, who begins to fit the pieces together – seeing Atari as a hero.
Soon, the dogs of Trash Island are thoroughly on a journey of discovery as they meet with others on their path, including Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) and Oracle (Tilda Swinton), who direct the pack to the far reaches of the island on their trail for Spots. But will the jaded stray Chief warm to Atari, or will Atari continue on his path without Chief’s help? Will they find Spots alive and well, or will the group’s efforts all be in vain, if the cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi’s plans come to fruition? Should you even care?
Yes. Yes you should.
Because he’s a twelve year old boy. Dogs love those.
First of all, I need to tell you that the animation in Isle Of Dogs is just outstanding. Each character moves, breathes and lives in their world – and I guarantee you will quickly forget that you’re watching stop motion. It is absolutely glorious. Not only that, but there is a fairly significant use of traditional animation, too. This occurs on televisions screens and computer monitors throughout the film, which blended the two styles absolutely flawlessly. In short, this film is a genuine work of art.
So too are the characters. Each and every character felt real, with the performances by each and every voice actor lending a credibility to their actions on screen. There is nothing to fault with any of this. Or the music, either. The music by Alexandre Desplat instantly transports you to a world other than your own, with darkness blended in with more traditional Japanese music to truly sell the story.
The use of the song ‘I Won’t Hurt You’ by The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band in one particular scene genuinely brings a tear to your eye – well, if you have a soul, anyway.
But, then, there’s the other stuff. There’s been talk of cultural appropriation in the media recently, and frankly, this is a pretty weak argument. Japan is used as a cultural inspiration, one that is alien to most of the audience, further putting 90% of us watching from the west firmly on the side of the dogs of the story. This is fine. The names, however, do seem a little on the nose. Atari. Kobayashi. Yoko bloody Ono. I dunno. This seems lazy to me, and legitimately did take me out of the movie on more than one occasion.
So too did the character of Tracy. An incredibly unnecessarily lazy and misplaced character, Tracy has been called the epitome of the ‘white saviour’ trope – and not without reason. I hated her. An American exchange student that kickstarts some sort of revolution felt significantly out of place, though perhaps this was to signpost the audience into seeing her as a ‘goodie’, along with the dogs on Trash Island. I dunno. What I do know is that it led the way to a very disappointing final act, with all the pieces in play to have a final, climatic confrontation at the end of the film – only for everything to sort of.. taper off.
Problems were solved, yes, arcs were completed, okay, but after the first hour I just had no sense of dread or rising tension. Things just poodled along.
Though this did leave me feeling a bit disappointed as I left the cinema, the journey here is the important thing, and it’s hard to shake the fuzzy feeling of a Wes Anderson story. I’m still listening to the soundtrack now, and you can guarantee I will be doing so many, many more times in the future.
So, in summary, a long walk to nowhere. Bring some extra poo bags and a pocket full of treats, it’s worth it all the same.
Yours, A P Tyler