Having enjoyed critical and commercial success with Fantastic Mr Fox (2009), it was perhaps inevitable that Wes Anderson would revisit that stop-motion animation style that earned him an Academy Award nomination. This latest work from the indie darling utilises the same techniques to tell a story that falls flat despite being infused with all the quintessential quirk on which Anderson has built his career. Perhaps more problematic is the fact that, although Anderson was no doubt intending Isle of Dogs to be a homage to Japan, the film is laden with stereotypes that might well be regarded by some as an appropriation that plays more like a parody than a celebration of Japanese culture and iconography. Anderson has declared the film a “reimagining” of Japan through his experience of Japanese cinema, but the mish-mash of cultural artefacts, imagery, costuming and hollow depictions of Japanese people suggest that maybe we haven’t made much progress since the dehumanising portrayals of Asian cultures from the ‘60’s that are perhaps best exemplified by Mickey Rooney’s indefensible casting as Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Like Tiffany’s however, Isle of Dogs can still be appreciated for its strengths, not the least of which is the strange beauty of the landscape that Anderson and his animation team have created. An almost post-apocalyptic mood hangs over the titular island to which all dogs have been banished by Mayor Kobayashi under the pretense of protecting the population of from outbreaks of snout fever and canine flu that have spread through the city of Megasaki. Obviously, this aspect of the story plays as a parable of disenfranchisement, of people being pushed to the margins and cast aside from mainstream society because of ignorance, unfounded fears and political malfeasance. It is also a story that addresses friendship as a group of exiled hounds assist Atari, a young boy – who happens to be Kobayashi’s adopted son – in his quest to locate Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber), the loyal canine companion cast aside by his cat-loving father. The film also touches on the issue of animal welfare given that the dogs have been abandoned and left to fend for themselves on an island otherwise used as a garbage repository.
Whilst the communication between the dogs is presented in English, a lot of the human language is in Japanese, with only Kobayashi’s speeches from the stage of the Municipal Dome being translated via Frances McDormand’s Interpreter Nelson. As such, the Japanese characters as presented as an exotic ‘other’ in their own land, a representation that is exacerbated further by the fact that the savior of the piece is Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), a foreign exchange student whose outrage at what is transpiring only serves to cast the Japanese people as largely indifferent about the treatment of the animals and Atari’s mission to be reunited with Spots.
In a career that has delivered a slew of terrific films (The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel amongst them), it is not surprising that Anderson has been able to assemble such a stellar voice cast that also includes Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Bryan Cranston, F Murray Abraham and Bob Balaban as the various dogs, while the dulcet tone of Courtney B. Vance delivers a narration that wouldn’t be necessary if Anderson had simply allowed the characters to tell the story with accompanying sub-titles. The cinematography from Tristan Oliver embraces Anderson’s obsession with symmetry and combines beautifully with the music from Alexandre Desplat to render a film that is, for all the hardship that the characters endure and the somewhat limited cultural perspective that Anderson presents, a whimsical and typically twee exploration of loyalty and friendship.