Isle of Dogs review – Wes Anderson unleashes a cracking canine caper | Peter Bradshaw's film of the week

Set in a dystopian Japan of the future, the animated story of a boy’s search for his lost pet is crammed with visual invention

It’s set in Japan, though east London’s Isle of Dogs just happens to be a short drive from 3 Mills Studios, which did a lot of the work on this film. So maybe our Isle of Dogs influenced the director, Wes Anderson. Or maybe he chose the title because it sounds like: “I love dogs.”

Isle of Dogs is another utterly distinctive, formally brilliant exercise in savant innocence from Anderson, somewhere between arch naivety and inspired sophistication. I laughed a lot, not really at jokes, but at its hyper-intelligent stabs of visual invention. It’s a stop-motion animation – like his Roald Dahl adaptation Fantastic Mr Fox (2009) – visually controlled to its every analogue micro-particle, a complete handmade world. The screenplay is by Anderson, along with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and the Japanese actor and writer Kunichi Nomura who was also casting director and voices the villain of the piece – the dog-hating Mayor Kobayashi.

We find ourselves in a dystopian Japan of the future, where all dogs are exiled to an offshore island trash dump. One of the interned beasts is Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber) whose devoted master is the 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin), nephew of the dog-hating Mayor himself. This remarkable boy flies to the Isle in a stolen plane on a sensational mission to rescue Spots. And in this he is helped by the ragtag crew of heroic outlaw pooches he meets: Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum).

Isle of Dogs has run into controversy. Anderson’s post-modern japonaiserie, its filmic references to Japanese movies, art and music are all presented in what seems to me joyous good faith. But the heroic dogs speak in American English, and the mostly villainous, dramatically subordinate humans speak in often unsubtitled Japanese, leading to suggestions of insensitivity, cliche, othering and cultural appropriation, although this debate has so far passed over the question of what Japanese people themselves actually think of this film. I would agree that getting Yoko Ono to voice one of the characters maybe takes us coyly close to the laugh-with/laugh-at borderline. But Anderson’s omnivorous appropriation is always cut with his own saline quirk, a willed and almost pedantic superimposition of his own sensibility, that of a western artist.

And appropriation is what an imagination does. Doesn’t it venture outside its identity and attempt to master something else – in various serious or comic registers? Anderson is arguably no more or less insensitive or chauvinist here than in his treatment of central European culture in The Grand Budapest Hotel or indeed dear old Blighty in Fantastic Mr Fox. Why should our progressive opinion be nettled now? Why should Japanese culture be assigned the status of underdog?

A complete handmade world … Isle of Dogs.
A complete handmade world … Isle of Dogs. Photograph: Allstar/American Empirical Pictures

Actually, the chief Japanese influence on Anderson is one I have been noticing since the days of his 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums, and that is Yasujirō Ozu, specifically his habit of setting up direct sightlines into camera, a mannerism that will get you hit over the knuckles with a ruler at film school, but which Ozu made part of his filmic language. And it is part of Anderson’s deadpan rectilinear compositions, huge panoramas and intricate tableaux, often alternating with droll diagrams or layouts.

There’s a difference now. Isle of Dogs is bleaker and blanker than Wes Anderson’s habitual visual confectionery. The landscape of garbage canyons is grim, which makes individual details the more notable. Looking out over the mountains of detritus, you can see cable cars on the horizon, tiny blobs on distant threads. Their movement is hypnotic.

And there are the dogs themselves, gazing at us square-on with their black-pebble eyes, or in profile at each other. Their expressive clarity of movement is somehow very funny. I mean it as the highest possible compliment in saying they remind me of Jim Henson’s Muppets. Cranston’s Chief is the star of this film, a stray, a maverick, a badass who is the subject of a plot twist and counter-twist. Chief broods about the inevitability of species destiny. He once bit a human’s hand, a hand that was literally trying to feed him, and there is something strangely moving about Chief’s burden of moral self-criticism.

Hosting the Golden Globes in 2015, Amy Poehler got a big laugh by saying that Anderson had arrived at the ceremony on “a bicycle made of antique tuba parts”. Actually, the tuba, the bicycle and everything else are all made of thousands of intricate parts that he has designed and built himself. What a creator.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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