Isle of Dogs (2018)
Director: Wes Anderson
Screenwriters: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Greta Gerwig, Yoko Ono
Following on from the critical and public smash that was The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson returned to screens after a break of four years with 2018’s Isle of Dogs. The film was Anderson’s second foray into the world of stop-motion animation after 2009’s Fantastic Mr Fox. As with all Anderson projects, the ensemble cast proved to be one of the main draws, on this occasion led by the voice of ‘Breaking Bad’ star Bryan Cranston and Anderson regulars Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum, each of whom played members of a group of dogs exiled to Trash Island by the infamous Kenji Kobayashi, mayor of Megasaki, whose family was proven to have a generations-deep hatred of canines.
Upon release, Isle of Dogs earned rave reviews and received nominations throughout awards season for Best Animated Feature. Writing in The Guardian, leading British film critic Mark Kermode noted that “Isle of Dogs is a delight: funny, touching and full of heartfelt warmth and wit”. This certainly wasn’t the only outpouring of love for the film, with many noting how well Anderson’s style suited the animation, praising the film’s quirkiness and humour. There have been some detractors who have criticised the way it depicts Japanese culture, with accusations of cultural appropriation, but the overarching consensus is that Isle of Dogs turned out to be one of Anderson’s stronger films.
The core narrative of Isle of Dogs centres on Mayor Kobayashi’s nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin) who sets off to Trash Island to recover his guard dog spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber). Along the way Atari encounters Chief (Cranston), Duke (Goldblum), Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Murray) and King (Bob Balaban), and together they form a ragtag crew of exiled dogs, all of whom are slightly world-weary and struggling to survive in their newfound world separated from humanity.
The story focuses on both the situation on the island itself and the developing issues on the mainland, where we follow efforts from the government to cover up the fake disease that was used as the reason to exile the dogs. We also follow US foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (voiced by Lady Bird and Little Women director Greta Gerwig) in her efforts to expose the mayor’s lies.
The voice cast is one of the film’s clearest strengths, with Bryan Cranston suitably gruff and grizzled as Chief, a dog whose relationship with Atari and his fellow dogs form the film’s core. Jeff Goldblum’s Duke acts more as comic relief, while there is a fun smaller part for Tilda Swinton as Oracle, a seemingly wise dog.
While the film zips along as many of Anderson’s other films do, it still has a strong sense of heart and intimacy, and the way the relationship between Atari and Chief develops is especially indicative of this.
The score from Anderson regular Alexandre Desplat is another of the film’s high points. Incorporating traditional Japanese soundscapes and built around taiko drums with flourishes of woodwind, the score acts as a nice contrast to Desplat’s previous Anderson compositions – there are even nods to the works of Akira Kurosawa and glimpses of Prokofiev’s “Lieutenant Kijé” throughout the film. In between the more typically Japanese sounds of the score, Desplat and Anderson leave room for spots of popular music as has become customary of Anderson’s filmography, in this case focusing mainly on the eerie tones of The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band.
Isle of Dogs is a loving tale of canine and human friendship, recreating the culture of Japan in a heartfelt manner that illustrates Anderson’s appreciation for Japanese culture and the nation’s people. As with other Anderson films, the offbeat nature may prove to be off-putting to newcomers, but Anderson purists are in for a treat filled with familiar voices who blend into their surroundings meticulously.
Isle of Dogs once again illustrated Wes Anderson’s versatility as a director and was a bold move away from the trappings of The Grand Budapest Hotel which had earned such acclaim. With a filmography that only looks set to grow, one can only hope that Anderson makes further trips into the world of animation.