Indie filmmaker Wes Anderson’s (Grand Budapest Hotel, Fantastic Mr Fox) creations exist in a kind of alternate America. Beloved as both a formalist with a fastidious and distinct visual style, and as a writer with a playfully absurdist world view, his America is one in which light doses of existential pathos butt up against dignity and deadpan humour. It is a place of decorum and dysfunction, set amongst twee doll-house design, ornate and precise. However, Isle of Dogs, Anderson’s second stop motion animated film, takes the familiar ingredients of the auteur’s style and blends them with a setting that for him, provides a wholly new study in formal specificity – the culture of Japan.
The story presents a future in which dogs, maligned and feared for their supposed diseases, are imprisoned on an island of refuse. Bryan Cranston voices world-weary Chief, the scruffy stray whose pack of alpha dogs finds itself journeying with a twelve-year-old boy, Atari. The resourceful child has flown to the island to rescue his beloved guard-dog Spots (Liev Schreiber), but it is only a matter of time before Atari’s uncle, the powerful Mayor Kobayashi (a cat-lover no less) employs his coldly efficient technologies to capture and bring him home, whereupon the mayor will employ his final solution to eradicate dogs altogether.
Anderson has never been this overt a political filmmaker. Japan as a setting is perfectly apt. Not only does it provide a rich playground for the director’s fascination with precise and meticulous composition (the artistry in the preparation of sushi is given its full due here), but more than this, the historical resonance goes deep, inverting the US internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. In Isle of Dogs, a film for American audiences, only the beleaguered, scapegoated animals speak English, where the Japanese language is translated for us by interpreters or subtitles. Consequently, we the audience are positioned as the ‘other’. We are forced to experience being vilified and discriminated against.
This is not to say Isle of Dogs is arduously serious. It is a rebellious adventure that young and old will enjoy. It is both witty and sweet, with animated world-building that is visually astonishing (definitely big-screen viewing). But for those wanting to look deeper, it confronts the tension between free will and devotion, and is a profound indictment of systems of fear, isolationism, and oppression that continue to threaten the world.