Get it? And if you love dogs AND Wes Anderson movies, it’s likely that you’ll find more enjoyment in this clever and quirky but ultimately disappointing animation than I did.
I’m not sure why I’m not a fan of Anderson films. I like deadpan, stylised films that take unexpected and challenging premises and normalise them. I like Kaurismaki and Lanthimos and Mehmet Can Mertoglu’s Album. They have a similar approach but where they seem to be communicating profound metaphoric meanings, Anderson’s story seems shallow and predictable in comparison.
The concept and production design of Isle of Dogs is stunning. Taking years to complete, the intricate sets and stop motion animation create a world that is ostensibly Japan in the near future but feels like a steam punk version. It mixes a traditional woodblock design aesthetic with technology that has a mechanical feel.
The story is a simple one. Corrupt mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) comes from a long line of dog-hating cat lovers. He uses the outbreak of some canine-specific diseases to exile all dogs to Trash Island and to marginalise the scientists who are on the verge of finding a cure. His ward, 12 year old Atari (Koyu Rankin) flies to Trash Island to save his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). A pack of dogs there help him and learn some lessons along the way, including that life is better when you have a master. An American exchange student, Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) leads a pro-dog protest and it all ends happily.
The design aesthetic is the most interesting aspect of the film. Each part of Trash Island that the lost boys travel through has a distinct feel, colour and texture – rusted red metal, white paper, black cathode ray tubes, candy-striped barrels – and this contrasts with the Third Reich rally feel of the meeting hall and the jewel-like backdrop of the bar.
There are some gorgeous moments and exquisite details; a kidney in a kidney dish, sushi being prepared, a blossom petal caught in fur. Music comes to the fore in some scenes, creating a kind of wistful melancholy around the quest of the hero to find his friend.
The dog puppets have alpaca and merino fur and a technique of using only every second frame accentuates the analogue feel of the stop-motion in a cinematic world where we are used to digital smoothness. In contrast, the human puppets are resin and have a harder feel. They are caricatures of cinematic and comic book archetypes. Tracy Walker is modelled on Kerry Fox’s portrayal of Janet Frame in An Angel at my Table and has the same curly-haired, 70s dagginess and the intensity given to female characters who are earnest and intelligent and, therefore, not pretty.
It is the characterisations that disappoint the most. The humans are all drawn with broad strokes, so to speak, and are stereotypes with little depth or reason for their motivations. The mayor is bad, the scientists are morose and weak, the boy hero is monosyllabic and Tracy is all angst and sentiment.
Most of the humans are voiced by Japanese actors or people with a Japanese cultural background but they don’t get a lot of dialogue. There is a conceit around only translating some of the Japanese dialogue that is a bit odd and further enhances the shallowness of the characters for an English-speaking audience. It also shifts the agency away from the Japanese, whose culture is being depicted (and arguably appropriated), to a largely white and US cast.
The dogs are the only substantial characters and for some reason they are nearly all voiced by white men. It is disappointing that, where race or gender needn’t have been an issue, we get another ‘universal’ story populated by white blokes. The names of the male dogs all denote leadership; Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum).
There are three female dogs and two, Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) and Peppermint (Kara Hayward), are pretty, with silky fur and almost no purpose, narratively. The third, Oracle (Tilda Swindon), is relatively gender-neutral and is given a few funny lines. The film just scrapes through the Bechdel Test by a few words. The only person of colour I could identify was Courtney B. Vance as the narrator.
The lack of diversity just makes this film feel all the more familiar, tired and predictable. There is a lack of dramatic impetus to the story line. This happens. Then this. Then this. And we know where it’s going to end up, although I didn’t expect the ending to be quite so trite. Overall, so much less than the sum of its parts.
Have you seen this film? Are you an Anderson fan and feel I have missed the point? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.