If you’re wondering whatever happened to man’s best friend, salvation has come for us all in Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. A zippy and ambitious stop-motion adventure, the return of beloved indie royalty opened the 2018 Berlin Film Festival with a bark, not a whimper.
While Anderson is no stranger to animation following his wonderfully charming Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), there’s noticeable maturity in the beauty of this film’s world — despite it being made of garbage. In a dystopian Japan of the future, dogs have been banished to Trash Island following a widespread epidemic of “canine flu.” In the heat of political uproar, a young boy, Atari (Koyu Rankin), travels to the island in search of his dog. Helped by a grumpily vibrant pack, deftly led by Rex (Edward Norton) and Chief (Bryan Cranston), a rough-and-tumble search for friendship and belonging ensues.
Back in town, politicians and pro-dog protesters do battle to make sense of the anarchic ban in their own ways. Among the dog-lovers (feelings on cats go mostly unmentioned), Tracey (Greta Gerwig), a plucky teen activist with equal amounts of freckles and ambition, fights for peace to be restored — not exactly a million miles away from the Teenage Girls of Anderson’s Past, such as The Royal Tenenbaums’ Margot or Suzy Bishop in Moonrise Kingdom.
A lot of risks are taken in a movie that bridges countries, politics and species. The intricacy of Anderson’s craft is more tangible than ever, as a pattern of mirror images and opposing dualities punctuates the film. Between dogs and humans, Japanese and English, strays and prized pets, the film pushes and pulls meaning with a fighting spirit. The level of detail is astonishing, almost to the point of sheer aesthetic exhibition. In a desolate amusement park, in underground tunnels and a tightly-run sushi kitchen, the cogs of Anderson’s whirring machine are visible, and begging to impress.
However, this isn’t always a well-oiled machine. With so much on offer, the story progression can feel as haphazard as its abandoned pups sometimes. While maintaining a great level of creative excitement, the sheer amount of elements to control leads, at times, to exhaustion.
The thrill of a wild percussion-based score (courtesy of Alexandre Desplat on top form) gives some kind of chutzpah to the fast unravelling narrative, anchoring the events with great gusto. An all-star voice cast brings an incredible energy to a shattered world, from the reliably deadpan brilliance of Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Bryan Cranston, to the svelte charisma of Scarlett Johansson’s Nutmeg and Tilda Swinton’s brilliant cameo as an all-seeing psychic pug. But there is a degree of trust that Anderson asks of viewers, as the humour mostly relies on the acceptance of tongue-and-cheek puns and flat-out slapstick, as well as the fact that half of the dialogue simply isn’t translated.
Making a deliberate choice to simultaneously immerse and distance himself and his home audience through language, Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is unmistakably the work of a confident director. It pulls off some impressive technical tricks and raises the bar yet again. While messy in parts and offering more of a sprint than a narrative marathon, there is great heart and ferocious energy in this cartoonish caper.
In conversation, Anderson revealed that the initial idea for the film didn’t begin with a dystopian and ravaged future, or even in Japan — it started with the dogs. This is a movie about dogs, with dogs, that very clearly loves dogs in all of their lively and loyal determination. You can try and ask them to sit, roll over or slow down to catch your breath, but ultimately, man is going to have to keep running if he wants to keep up.
Ella Kemp (@ella_kemp) is a film critic and photographer based in London. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film & TV studies and maintains a passionate love for good design and great relationships on screen. She writes about film, TV and music for Little White Lies, the Independent and Into the Fold.