Print Edition - 2018-06-16  |  On Saturday

Underdog days

  • While Wes Anderson’s new Isle of Dogs might not quite hit the high notes of his previous stop-motion feature, it’s still pretty darned terrific in its own right, another superb showcaseof the writer-director’s inimitable style and sensibilities

Jun 16, 2018-

It’s 20 years from the present day, and an epidemic of “snout fever” has hit almost all local dogs in the Japanese city of Megasaki, a disease now threatening to spill out onto the human population. The despotic Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura)—who hails, not entirely coincidentally, from a dynasty of cat-loving, dog-despising warriors—has declared a public health emergency, and come up with a rather unconventional solution to the problem. Dismissing the efforts of his more scientifically-inclined political rival Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) to convince him to wait until an antidote is ready, Kobayashi decides that all dogs in the city shall be shipped to the nearby Trash Island, a deserted industrial site and giant dumping ground, where they will be left to live out their final days. The first to be exiled is Spots (Liev Schreiber), a guard dog in the mayor’s own household meant for the protection of his young, orphaned ward, 12-year-old Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin). Thousands of others then follow, and Trash Island is soon teeming with sick, hungry, miserable pooches.

Among them, we become familiar with a particular group—comprising Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum)—all alphas who have established something of a democratic system between themselves so as to better compete against the many other packs roaming the island for filthy, maggot-eaten scraps of food. Things are so bad here that Rex is close to giving up, an attitude that seriously irks Chief, the only one among them who had been a stray back home and who is proud of the fact that he was never domesticated like the others. Everything changes, however, when a plane crash lands on the island one day, carrying a little pilot: It’s Atari, come to save Spots. Even though finding “dog zero” is not going to be easy (there are rumours he’s been taken in by a band of cannibal canines living at the other end of the island), Rex and the others decide to help the boy in his quest, if for nothing than the fact that he—unlike their own owners—at least cared enough to come looking.

Isle of Dogs is Wes Anderson’s newest feature, and the second plunge into stop-motion animated comedy for the writer-director after 2009’s delightful adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox. While it might not quite hit Mr Fox’s high notes, Isle of Dogs—co-written by Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzmann and actor Nomura—is still pretty darned terrific in its own right, another superb showcase of Anderson’s unique, inimitable style and sensibilities. Indeed, it once again makes the case that animation might very well be the medium most suited to the director’s particular needs, allowing him to create more of the whimsical, contained and meticulously-designed environments that he so clearly relishes.

Back with Mr Fox cinematographer Tristan Oliver and other members of the animation team from that film, along with production designers Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod, Anderson again builds a world in miniature, one that is at once controlled and chaotic, a deliberate clashing of machine-like formalism with cartoonish antics, the rough-edged, childish jerkiness of stop-motion puppetry with somber, deadpan dialogues. And then there are the details dripping from each scene, each frame, in fact, so much so you struggle to take it all in, and the only way to console yourself is to commit to a re-watch sometime soon. Trash Island itself, for instance, has been beautifully rendered, a desolate, fetid expanse of colourful garbage heaps, scurrying rats and all manner of forgotten things. Though it’s all gorgeous to look at, there are a number of stand-out sequences, including a meditative preparation of sushi, the cotton-clouds that emerge whenever our mutts get into a fight, and the occasional flattened 2D scenes.  

There are, of course, bound to be people who take issue with the depiction of Japanese society and culture in the film, accusing Anderson of improper cultural appropriation. But—aside from the character of Tracy (voiced by Greta Gerwig), an American exchange student who whips her Japanese contemporaries into action, and who occupies a dated “white saviour” stereotype I wish they’d cut out of the story—it’s pretty clear that Anderson has no illusions of cultural authenticity here. The strategy, much like in 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited, is rather to send up how Japan is perceived by outsiders looking in, how the country is portrayed in popular culture—in other words, it’s meant to be superficial. Along those lines, most of the humans on screen talk in Japanese, with no accompanying subtitles for the benefit of non-Japanese speaking viewers, while the dogs bark in English.  

It’s very tempting to read Isle of Dogs as a timely analogy for the real-life plight of refugees and minorities across the world today, and the rise of intolerant fear-mongers to power as represented by the loudmouth mayor and his allies. The callous deportation of the dogs, the politically-savvy schoolchildren who come out into the streets in protest of the move while the adults stand by and do nothing, all these feel like deliberate nods to recent headlines—as pointed a commentary as Anderson has ever put up in any of his films.

But political metaphors aside, I’m also happy to take the film at face value, as being about animals and the cruelty they suffer at the selfish hands of mankind. It touches on how we’re often taught, from a very young age, to view animals as resource—whether on display in horrifically cramped spaces in zoos, kept as pets or consumed as food—to be enjoyed and discarded as we see fit. If you’ve ever felt a pang of something like sympathy upon seeing a starving, abused stray on the streets, many of whom are turned out by irresponsible owners the minute they’ve outlived their usefulness, you’ll most likely be moved by Isle of Dogs. And it certainly helps that Anderson and his team of tech-wizards have lavished such loving attention on bringing these furballs to detailed life here.

So while Isle of Dogs might not match the manic, irresistible energy of Mr Fox, it’s an Anderson fix I’m happy to accept.

Isle of Dogs

Director: Wes Anderson

Actors: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban,

Jeff Goldblum

Genre: Animated comedy

Published: 16-06-2018 09:33

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