Isle of Dogs — A fine balance of stylistic endeavour & contemporary political relevance

Written and directed by: Wes Anderson

Story by: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Ed Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson

Following a four-year hiatus, Wes Anderson succeeds his last entry, The Grand Budapest Hotel, with an equally, if not more ambitious, piece of work. Entirely comprised of animated stop-motion figures resembling puppets — the same method used with Fantastic Mr. Fox — Isle of Dogs functions as a trademark of its auteur whilst carrying the equal sophistication and identification as a modern-day socio-political parable.

Set in a dystopic, totalitarian Japan ruled by the corrupt Kobayashi, Anderson’s latest film explores a scenario in which dogs, once loyal house pets, are outlawed and systematically exiled to a remote junkyard. The canine has become a symbol of disease and decay in the public eye — does this perhaps ring any bells? This leads to the quest of Kobayashi’s nephew, Atari, to reunite with his once-loyal house pet Spots, which will pit him against government forces and anti-dog sentiment. In the meantime, a pro-dog movement grows within the country; its members include an American exchange student, Watanabe — Kobayashi’s main political rival, and a familiar name (one would be hard-pressed not to attempt to spot the John Lennon reference!)

The ragtag group of canines who assist him in his journey are voiced by seasoned actors, led by Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) who lends his talent to alpha dog Chief, and Ed Norton (Fight Club) who breathes life into sensitive Rex. The wide range of acting ability offered, which also includes Wes Anderson regulars such as Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Harvey Keitel, grants emotion and strong characterisation to the four-legged puppets instead of reducing them to the mere gimmick of “talking animals”. Furthermore, the balance between their voice acting and Japanese speech within the human characters establish a surprisingly plausible atmosphere, whilst allowing Anderson to revel in references to Japanese cinema and artworks…

…all of which lead to the high production values offered. The juxtaposition between a Japan akin to paradise and a “Trash Island” akin to a post-apocalyptic nightmare provides a unique, rough direction to the film. From the filth on the dogs’ faces to the blood stains on the specks of their fur, no detail goes unexplored. The soundtrack consists of similarly moderate, yet effective and authentic drum beats. All the attention and vision that has influenced the style serves to complement and compensate for the simple, emotionally distant odyssey narrative offered.

Therefore, Isle of Dogs can both be enjoyed as a lighthearted fable and to some extent, a subtle critique of political hate-mongering. It is truly a film that has something for Wes Anderson fans and the uninitiated. Although Anderson’s signature style is apparent, Isle of Dogs carries merit as a distinct piece of work. In order to cultivate the aural and the visual benefits of Anderson’s creative vision and the setting, however, it is best enjoyed in the ambiance of a large theatre screen.

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