Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs Barks Close To Home

Anderson’s ninth film might be his most political, darkest to date

by Stefania Sarrubba

Four years after The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson still isn’t missing a shot. Frankly, it’s become quite irritating. Wes Anderson surely has a well-established vision we all know and love (or hate, depending on which side you stand), but he is also able to renovate it. His ninth piece of work, Isle of Dogs, is proof.

Those centred frames, so maniacally symmetrical you almost start feeling sorry for the DOP. The usual bunch of famous actors desperately struggling to find slots to work with him, refusing mastodontic productions to voice a clay puppet. That pastel colour grading, the love child of unicorn poo and Instagram filters.

Isle of Dogs Wes’ second animation film after Fantastic Mr. Fox, is more than just another carefully, frantically chiselled work, shot two seconds a day. It’s a dark, political and poetical statement in stop motion.

Undoubtedly, The Grand Budapest Hotel had some darkness to it, although this was concealed in the now iconic pastel pink shade. The colour palette of Isle of Dogs, however, matches its political message perfectly, delivering Anderson’s gloomiest film to date.

Twenty years into the future, in a dystopic Japan the government is trying to divert people’s attention away from corruption and inherent vices by winding them up against dogs, guilty of spreading canine flu. Does it sound familiar? Well, there’s more to it.

In the city of Megasaki, all dogs have been exiled to a squalid, desolate dump, Trash Island, a grey yet vivid reminder of both concentration and refugees camps. 12-year-old pilot Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), the nephew and ward of the corrupted mayor (Anderson’s co-writer Kunichi Nomura), sets out on a mission to find his beloved Spots (Liev Schreiber), the first dog to be quarantined on the island. A group of former pet dogs (voiced by Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Bob Balaban) and the grumpy stray Chief (Bryan Cranston) help him in his search.

This four-part canine epic pays homage to Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa, an avowed model for Anderson. The Texan director borrows from Japanese culture to tell a bleak story from a new, visually compelling point of view involving different media, from landscapes inspired by Hokusai’s prints to kawaii clay characters and anime sequences.

Wes Anderson’s representation of Japan does not feel like a cultural appropriation. Anderson respectfully tiptoed into Japanese culture, succeeding in what Hollywood is failing. He avoids whitewashing by casting Japanese actors to voice the non-westernised human characters and let them speak Japanese without subtitles or translation. The choice of translating only the barks into English is explained in the very first scene, confirming Anderson doesn’t feed his audience dog treats.

And yet, Isle of Dogs is also deeply American, in the alternative patriotic sense the word has acquired in Trump’s post-truth era. Ever since Trump’s election, people have taken to the streets, awakening their sleeping political conscience. The media has been reflecting that ‘woke’ attitude and Isle of Dogs is no exception as it shows a pro-dog student group actively campaigning against the government, fighting prejudice and battling for justice.

At a glance, this dark, futuristic animation gem may not be the Wes Anderson’s film you would expect, but it surely is the Wes Anderson’s film we need right now. Forget the past and its pretty shades, Isle of Dogs is a tough one and dang, how it bites back.

Isle of Dogs is out in cinema on Friday 23rd March