Wes Anderson’s newest offering, Isle of Dogs, is perhaps his darkest film yet. Set in the fictional city of Megasaki, Japan in the not-too-distant future, an outbreak of canine flu sees evil Mayor Kobayashi banish all dogs to Trash Island – aptly renamed Isle of Dogs. When the Mayor’s nephew, Atari Kobayashi, crash-lands on the island attempting to rescue his canine companion Spots (Liev Shreiber), a rag-tag group of strays offer to join him on his mission. Joining the cast of returning Anderson favourites (Keitel, Edward Norton,Bill Murray) Bryan Cranston stars as Chief, the leader of the pack. Chief is reluctant to help Kobayashi, blaming humans for his own abandonment and the exile of dogs to Trash Island. Chief represents a different kind of Wes Anderson protagonist; weathered and worn-out by his life as a stray, he is cynical and refuses to look out for anyone but himself. It is only the idea of mating with the enigmatic former show-dog Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) that encourages Chief to help Atari in his search for Spots.
Wes Anderson first dipped his toes into the world of stop-motion with 2009’s acclaimed Fantastic Mr Fox, adapted from the Roald Dahl book of the same name. Isle of Dogs marks his first fully original animated feature, and while it contains many of the hallmarks of a classic Wes Anderson film, the world in which this story takes place is much bleaker than in any of his earlier work. This is also Anderson’s first film to be set in the future — perhaps Anderson is not the eternal optimist we all thought he was. Given America’s current political climate, the story of a tyrannical leader outlawing an entire species based on a fabrication does seem timely to say the least, but by setting Isle of Dogs in Japan, the story is detached enough from current affairs that it acts more as a cautionary tale than a damning indictment of these policies.
That is not to say that the Wes Anderson everybody knows and loves is nowhere to be seen. The characters are still as quirky as ever; Edward Norton voices the good natured but neurotic Rex, who would likely have been the star in any of Anderson’s other films. Jeff Goldblum is on typically offbeat form as Duke, and Bill Murray is as likeable as ever as Boss. Frequent Wes Anderson collaborator Tilda Swinton also returns as Oracle, a supposedly clairvoyant pug (and it is every bit as incredible as it sounds). The human characters are somewhat less compelling; Greta Gerwig voices Tracy, a precocious foreign-exchange student attempting to prove the conspiracy against dogs perpetuated by the Kobayashi dynasty. While there is nothing wrong with this b-plot, it means that the audience gets to spend less time on Trash Island with the much more interesting canine protagonists.
It’s always refreshing to see directors working outside of their wheelhouse, especially one who is constantly pushing himself creatively from project-to-project. Isle of Dogs explores themes of oppression and isolationism, much heavier topics than is typical for Wes Anderson’s work, but with his trademark sense of tongue-in-cheek wit. Setting the film in Japan was a decision that allowed Anderson to not only explore these themes in an environment more detached from current events, but also gave the director an opportunity to more obviously express the influence Japanese cinema has had on all of his past work — with nods to Akira Kurosawa and the quiet animation of Hayao Miyazaki throughout. As with any Wes Anderson project, Isle of Dogs is likely to be one of the most unique films of the year and without a doubt one of the most finely crafted animated films in a long time.
Isle of Dogs is out now.
Words by Ethan Megenis-Clarke @_ethanmc.