In his second attempt at a stop motion feature, Wes Anderson has hit the nail on the head. On the face of it, Isle of Dogs has all the ingredients of a great action film: corruption, chase scenes, a rogue-to-hero character arc, and a final stand-off Stan Lee would be proud of. All that, spiced with the brilliantly quick wit of a Wes Anderson classic – up there with Rushmore – and incredible production design that calls for multiple viewings to take it all in.
The film is set in Japan, 20 years in the future, in the fictional city of Megasaki, where the corrupt mayor Kobayashi – a cat lover with a vendetta for all dogs – exiles all the furry fiends to Trash Island, the city’s rubbish dump. There, the starving dogs form clans and fight for food, as well as gossip about the latest island rumours, while Kobayashi makes malevolent plans for their future. Meanwhile the mayor’s nephew goes on a mission to save his beloved dog Spots, and crash lands on Trash Island, where the adventure ensues.
Visually, Isle of Dogs is a beautiful and authentic homage to Japanese culture and history. Suddenly Wes Anderson’s obsession with symmetry and immaculate attention to detail takes on new meaning in this context. From the set designs of the city to the hand drawn maps, woodblock print-inspired animations on the TVs, and the comedically adapted version of Hokusai’s The Wave, the production screams of being made by an obvious Japanophile, without any pastiche.
It’s also structured like a Japanese play, split into acts, with dramatic narration and traditional music. As it’s told with the grandeur of an old Japanese fairytale, this sets up a brilliant complement to the scruffy dogs (voiced by the likes of Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum and, of course, Bill Murray) and their deadpan quips, and it’s this contrast that heightens the impact of the comic timing, which at times is sharp as a sushi knife. Even a glance to camera from a cynical or confused dog is enough to make the audience burst into laughter.
Where Fantastic Mr Fox (Anderson’s first animated feature) was entertaining, Isle of Dogs is hilarious. Perhaps this is due to the former, as well-known Roald Dahl classic, restricting Anderson’s license to engineer the characters too much for fear of meddling with a family favourite. As an original story co-written with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura, Isle of Dogs allows Anderson’s signature dry wit to come through its characters and their dynamics.
A particular highlight is Tilda Swinton’s cameo. In most of her films the actor is captivating, and somehow she still manages to steal the show playing a small, dopey pug. Her character Oracle has visions (she understands what’s happening on the TV) and her handful of lines get the biggest laughs of the whole film.
It’s the set design, however, that is truly the star of this film. Shot in typical Wes Anderson style with symmetrical, straight-on compositions, it allows each frame to make the most of its intricately built scenery, whether it’s a mountain of cubes of compacted trash or an especially memorable den made from multicoloured glass sake bottles. If your eyes aren’t exploring these delightful scenes, they’re drinking in the satisfying top-down shots of drawing in the sand, or sushi being made, or watching the dogs have a scrap in a cloud of cotton wool. Then there’s the hypnotic close-ups of the dogs’ glistening eyes and their reach-out-and-scratch-it fur, which serve as a reminder of this feat of craftsmanship. Relentlessly joyful and without a dull moment to speak of, I can’t wait to watch Isle of Dogs again to notice all the things I missed the first time.