Animation is the perfect medium for Wes Anderson. The auteur of pastel symmetry likes to mould the world to fit his preferred aesthetic, so why not just have complete control by creating your own from scratch?
In Isle of Dogs, Anderson builds on the stop-motion techniques used in Fantastic Mr. Fox and marries it with his heightened style, a la Moonrise Kingdom or The Grand Budapest Hotel. It results in an exquisitely crafted, beautiful world, filled with fabulous details. There’s much to pour over here for multiple viewings. It’s wonderful to look at – a series of moving paintings that homage a range of Japanese art, from woodblocks to Kurosawa. The voice-talent is stellar, Alexandre Desplat’s taiko drum-inspired score reaches notes of wonder, mischief, menace, and quirk, (plus the prerequisite obscure 60s pop song), there’s great dry humour, some interesting political commentary, and the puppets and mise en scène are stunningly rendered.
And so it almost feels cruel to find fault with something so obviously and painstakingly crafted, but ultimately the whole film isn’t imbued with enough humanity. Anderson’s constructed world lacks the heart that gives life to the hands that built it.
Isle of Dogs is set in a dystopian near future in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki. It’s run by Mayor Kobayashi (co-writer Kunichi Nomura), whose family have long controlled the prefecture and are definitely cat people. A canine epidemic has swept the city and the authoritarian mayor has decreed that all dogs who show symptoms be exiled to a nearby trash island. The first to be sacrificed is the mayoral household’s dog, Spots. Soon we’re hanging with a pack on the island – Chief, Rex, King, Boss and Duke – whose barks are translated into English by Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum. Twelve year old Atari (Koyu Rankin), orphaned ward of the mayor, crash lands a plane on the island in an attempted rescue mission of his beloved dog – none other than Spots. The pack, former house pets still longing for their masters, agree to help the boy on his journey, with a reluctant Chief in tow. Together they will discover the fate of Spots and the greater mysteries behind the canine epidemic.
Anderson’s love of the country is clear, but some of his decisions around the representation of Japanese culture in the film are curious. The decision to set the film in Japan seems purely a stylistic one. It’s a disconnected use of a curated simulacrum of Japanese culture as if it were just a backdrop, simply a finishing coat of paint, which ultimately highlights the thinness of the film’s facade. The decision to have only the dogs speak in English also seems an initially interesting concept. But it soon makes only sometimes translating or subtitling the Japanese dialogue feel strange. That language becomes almost dismissed as meaningless for a vast majority of the audience – some might even wonder if it’s just Japanese-sounding gibberish. It’s like using a piece of artwork and not properly crediting it. One also questions whether the viewing experience is totally different for Japanese speakers, and why that divide has been deliberately created.
This dismissal of the language’s importance, and the sidelining of the Japanese humans, is also embodied by the character of Tracy (Greta Gerwig). Tracy is an American foreign exchange student who seeks the truth behind the mayor’s decision and leads the student protests against it. But why is the only white English speaker (who’s not a translator) – and so the one most easily understood and sympathised with by the majority of the audience – portrayed as a saviour here? The human characters lose their humanity and connection with the audience due to our lack understanding, and Anderson also fails to give the dogs the requisite depth. He can sometimes be guilty of overdirecting his human actors and taking away their dimensions, almost reducing them to puppets, and he’s got the same issue here. The dogs and humans cry freely throughout, but those displays of emotion never feel truly earned. Aside from Chief, there isn’t any real complexity to the characters and not enough connection between them and the audience to be ultimately invested in their fate.
Isle of Dogs truly is an exceptional piece of visual art, but it’s held back by being more for the eyes than for the heart.
Isle of Dogs is in cinemas from 12th April through 20th Century Fox.