Director: Wes Anderson
Rating: 5 Stars
In the not too distant future, the entire canine population of the Japanese city of Megasaki comes down with a mysterious illness. Facing angry opposition from what little dog lovers remain, the head of the city Mayor Kobayashi issues a decree that banishes all hounds to an abandoned trash island outside the city limits - the Isle of Dogs. This is how the latest piece by critically acclaimed director Wes Anderson opens, following worthily in the footsteps of his previous works. As the mind behind 2009’s Fantastic Mr Fox, Anderson is no stranger to animation, and here he once again exhibits his clear expertise working in said medium.
Japanese culture, and the myriad of the charming, varied and unusual elements that come with it, form the beating heart of the piece. Indeed, in interviews Anderson has acknowledged the impact of the works of Akira Kurosawa, Hayao Miyazaki and cult-favourite Akira on the film, and throughout the film the director’s love of Japanese cinema can be felt clearly.
This is not a film, it must be added, aimed primarily at children; the subject matter is, though comedic, quite dark, and the film does not shy away from the morbid themes that necessarily arise throughout. That’s not to say it revels in gore or the unsettling for too long at a time, and Anderson himself says that it wasn’t written “with anyone specific in mind”, but in following Japanese tradition the film has brought an important feature of Asian cinema to the West; animation that’s not just for children.
And if anyone knows how to make stop-motion worthwhile for adults, it’s Wes Anderson. All the lavish attention to detail that audiences have come to expect from the director can be found here - strong art direction lends each scene real charm and the sets are some of the best ever seen in animation. This is certainly also a film that will stay just as enjoyable on multiple viewings, with each scene crammed with small touches that only the most eagle-eyed viewer may spot the first time around.
The cast is spectacular - Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Bob Balaban bounce off one another magnificently as a pack of diseased mutts sticking together for survival on the garbage-filled prison island on which they find themselves. Koyu Rankin puts in an admirable and sincere performance as Atari, the 12 year old boy who journeys alone to the island on a rescue mission for his dog Spots. Additional voice talent includes the dazzling F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand and Harvey Keitel.
A wacky, confident score underpins the entire film, a mixture of the work of frequent Anderson collaborator Alexandre Desplat and pieces from films such as Seven Samurai and Lieutenant Kijé. A particularly poignant track, I Won’t Hurt You by 1960s psychedelic pop group The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, becomes a sort of unlikely anthem in the wild, perfect mix of esoteric tunes that play throughout.
Funny, endearing, confident, Isle of Dogs is another brilliant submission by the consistently compelling Wes Anderson. Facing an uncertain year of film, it’s good to know that there’s still much wonder to be had in the cinema, and with stop-motion. This year’s best film? Perhaps. But you’d be hard-pressed to find one more genuinely enjoyable.