‘Isle of Dogs’ Shows Once Again Why Wes Anderson Is One of America’s Most Beloved Filmmakers
Returning to the stop-motion animation that made Fantastic Mr. Fox such a beloved hit, Wes Anderson’s latest film is a treat for dog and film-lovers alike. A complete summation of his style, Isle of Dogs is the kind of film that only he could make. The opening film of the Berlinale, it has already made a very strong case to win the Golden Bear.
Wes Anderson starts the movie with a creation myth, telling via a tapestry of a great fight that occurred between dogs and the cat-loving authorities, and the one boy who stood up to their leader in order to save the dogs. This is told with great speed and wit, giving a brief glimpse into what a Wes Anderson superhero origin movie might look like. Cut to twenty years in the present future and all the dogs are diseased, forcing the Mayor (Kunichi Nomura) to banish them to a wasteland called Trash Island. However, a boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin) is determined to get back his dog, Spots, and crash-lands onto the island. There he meets a motley crew of canines who decide to help him on his journey. The resulting movie once again establishes why Wes Anderson is so dearly beloved.
Stop-motion is perfect for the filmmaker, as it allows him to control every aspect of his creation. There is not a single shot wasted here — every cut is used to either advance the plot, show something new, or develop character. Deploying his usual whip-pans, lateral tracking shots, and carefully curated composition, Anderson restates his case as one of America’s best auteurs. The dogs themselves are startlingly rendered, feeling alive as their fur blows in the wind. They are perfect for the director’s style because their faces are completely symmetrical, allowing them to stare right down the barrel of the camera.
Like Anderson’s previous films, Isle of Dogs is steeped in cinematic history, and has been made as a homage to Japanese cinema. Although there are some Ozu-style close-ups and some Kurosawa-like themes, the most obvious inspiration is the master animator Hiyao Miyazaki. Like Miyazaki’s best films, there is a space for silence and contemplation here, pillow shots constantly being deployed to make this world feel truly unique. Anderson’s last film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, showed that he was an expert at creating amazing worlds, and here he has made one of the most charming animated universes since Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle. After setting films in places as far-flung as India, Central Europe, and Japan, it is anyone’s guess as to where he will go next!
Ultimately, the film’s depiction of Japanese culture and cinema is respectful and loving, using animation to make clichés such as Sumo Wrestling feel fresh. The story gets around the issues of translation in a unique way, telling us straight away that the overarching plot will be translated through audio-interpreters, while the dogs themselves have their barks translated into English. As a result, this film should have a strong cross-over appeal and make solid waves into East Asian markets.
Anderson’s later films have always been plot-heavy, at times more concerned with the mechanics of narrative then building his characters. With so many players in this one, there are a few loose ends — such as three romantic subplots — that could’ve been built up a little more. Supporting female actresses such as Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton are underused here, making the adventure feel like a little bit of a boys club. Nevertheless, Greta Gerwig excels as the foreign-exchange student turned activist, Tracy, and Frances McDormand does brilliant work as a translator of official conferences, making regular humorous asides to the camera.
Easily the best arc in the movie belongs to Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray dog that has never been good at doing what he was told. He proves that dogs are only violent if they haven’t been treated right, their violence merely a response to fear. When you treat a dog right they become infinitely loving, making them a mirror of humanity. Through Chief’s arc the film finds its loving heart, and the movie provides its best, most heartbreaking scene.
In its depiction of an outcast species being sent off to a far-away island, Isle of Dogs opens itself up to allegorical readings. What it doesn’t do though is tie this to any obvious current political event, thus still maintaining its timeless feel. The main message is a simple one, and will appeal to adults and kids alike: treat animals with kindness, and stand up for what you believe in. Hardly fresh stuff, but it works due to its idiosyncratic presentation. Despite his tricks and gimmicks, deep-down Anderson is a very humanist filmmaker. Always looking for the good in people (or dogs), his films rail against human cruelty, making him one of the most important voices working in cinema today.
- Redmond Bacon
The 68th annual Berlin International Film Festival is scheduled to take place from 15 to 25 February 2018.