Cian Geoghegan enters a dystopian doggie future in Japan.
Many long winters have passed since Wes Anderson’s snowy epic The Grand Budapest Hotel stormed theatres across the globe. This is the longest gap Anderson has taken between films to date – four years. It’s not out of commercial exile, as the filmmaker has only found more and more success the more and more idiosyncratic his style becomes. He has turned auteur-driven filmmaking into a franchise of sorts.
The world has changed greatly in the four years without a new Wes Anderson joint. The fascist spectres looming in the background in Grand Budapest were once just a further burst of the writer-director’s imagination. Now, their inclusion seems eerily prescient. The rise of far-right politics in both Anderson’s home country and Europe, the home continent of many a stylistic influence, leaves a sharp impact on his new film, Isle of Dogs. Anderson has always used his fantastical worlds to understate a deeper emotional anguish. Here, everything is fantastical – the anguish is found in how close the supervillains are to reality.
The plot is simple – Atari, the young ward of a corrupt mayor embarks to the Isle of Dogs, to where the canine population have been exiled following a dog-flu scare. His mission: to rescue his dog Spots. Our cast of outcast “alpha-dogs” (Bryan Cranston among Anderson regulars – Norton, Murray, Goldblum and Balaban) take it upon themselves to guide him across the island, the mythology of which is textured, tragic and largely unspoken.
Displaced people, bigoted leaders, child activism – Dogs makes The Post look like a narcoleptic journalist submitting assignments months past the due date. Given the massive timescale required for a stop-motion feature, many of these real-life parallels are just happy accidents. The most affecting such accident may be Greta Gerwig’s character Tracy, an Ohio foreign exchange student with the energy to overthrow as many political oligarchs as there are hours in the day. The shooting in Parkland, Florida and the subsequent activist movement on behalf of surviving students occurred a week shy of the film’s Berlin premiere, yet these strands of art and life clash in a way that is not just coincidental, but profound and necessary.
Cool your jets on the ideology, though. All this political allegory props up a film of immense watchability. Jokes whip past at breakneck pace, with running gags drawing incessant giggles from the wholly adult audience at my screening. The music keeps the tone light as well. The nostalgic indie tunes typical of Anderson strum along, helping us forget how much this beautiful trash island probably smells.
Despite working mostly in live-action, Anderson seems a student of animation in Isle of Dogs. The constant barrage of dog jokes from all angles recall the childlike giddiness of Aardman animations. The quiet moments mirror the best of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. The footprints of Japanese filmmaking are left beyond the limits of animation. The shadow Kurosawa casts over the film cannot be understated.
It’s fitting that a film so thematically concerned with inclusivity and multiculturalism would serve just shy of being a bilingual picture. From the film’s earliest moments, it is clear we are witnessing a worldly film that is as much Japanese as it is American. Large portions of the film will play diametrically different to Japanese audiences, as the film audaciously focuses on Japanese characters speaking Japanese without subtitles. The viewer doesn’t feel left in the dark – if anything it endears them to the dog characters (“I wish somebody spoke his language,” one of Jeff Goldblum’s many zingers) The film’s identity is firmly planted in the far East. Weaved within the stop-motion is an ingenious visual effect dancing between rotoscope, cell-shading and hand-drawn animation. Art inspired by the Edo period is all over the film – particularly in the unapologetic exposition-dump of a prologue. Those who thought, that post-Budapest Anderson’s style was destined to collapse under its own whimsy if pushed to any further extreme, will be pleasantly surprised. A taste of the far East is just what Anderson needed to keep his style fresh.
The stop-motion on show is joyously (and sometimes deceptively) simple. The human characters are toy-like. They recall Robot Chicken more than Chicken Run. Use of practical effects carries on from Fantastic Mr. Fox – cotton clouds the skies and obscures the many dogfights with a busy haze. In terms of character design, the dogs have no right to be as distinct as they are – their personality are as thin as the scrawny inhabitants of the island, after all. Yet when one scene sets the canine cast in silhouette within an igloo of discarded bottles – a directorial decision made as if on a dare – we instantly know who is who. It helps that the warm glow of the scenery makes it one of the most beautiful scenes in a film of beautiful scenes.
The film seems to appeal to the kid in all of us, but the filmmakers seek to steer clear of actual kids. The MPAA have slapped a PG-13 on the film, prompting many to call foul, but I can see their reasoning. Sparse moments of language, gallows humour and bizarre gore add character to the film, but will keep it from reaching the widest audience and having an impact on the kids it so clearly wants to save the world.
Act three brings on another classic Andersonian climax, wherein all the dominoes set up so meticulously get to fall. Something about this ending seems a tad too neat, however. Anderson’s tightly constructed narratives have never contradicted the emotional truth lying beneath for the sake of cohesion, but in this case, he comes dangerously close. Teetering on feeling unearned, the film’s final moments are a tightrope-walk. Themes of anti-corruption and transparency come a hair too close to being betrayed for this critic’s liking.
Isle of Dogs is another instalment in Anderson’s hot streak, an animated film with personality and purpose to spare. The film is a crucial commentary on today’s climate, with visuals so beautiful as to make you forget how trenchantly political it all is. In what may be the Wes Anderson film both most and least concerned with the goings on of our world, he pulls off yet another impressive trick with grace. Good boy.
Isle of Dogs screened as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival (21 February – 4th March)