Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban
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Trash. It’s not a word one usually associates with Wes Anderson, cinema’s king of precisely composed pastel eccentricity. Nonetheless, it‘s a defining word for the director’s latest, Isle of Dogs, which takes place on a floating mound of waste off the coast of Japan, where man’s best friend is sent in quarantined exile, discarded by authoritarian politicians like a piece of rubbish.
That unusual starting point makes it clear not to expect an abundance of whimsy from Isle of Dogs, but also not too much neatness. This is Anderson’s least tidy film to date, as the Fantastic Mr. Fox director uses stop-motion not to assemble an intricate web of clockwork slapstick, but to piece together a scrappy adventure with fur and teeth; the filmmaker’s fingerprints are still all over it, but the prints are knowingly smudged, the figures moving one frame at a time notably frayed.
Our guides to this world are a pack of mongrels on Trash Island, where they were sent in response to an apparent outbreak of incurable canine flu. They find their existence interrupted by Atari (Koyu Rankin), the nephew of Megasaki City’s authoritarian mayor, who is looking for his old dog, Spots. And so, at the behest of purebred Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), our motley mutt crew – led by Chief (Bryan Cranston) – agree to help him locate his stray, estranged companion.
The resulting caper feels, like its visuals, looser than you’d expect from Anderson, and that, coupled with the darker tone, makes for a surprisingly detached watch – less due to a lack of sentiment, which Atari’s quest ultimately brings in abundance (watch out for one shot of a cage halfway through), but due to a lack of laughs, particularly after the guffaw-packed Grand Budapest Hotel. The voice cast (including Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum) are all suitably gruff, particularly the ubiquitous Bryan Cranston as the dogs’ gravelly-throated leader, whose anti-human stance softens as the tale unfolds. But the gag rate, while not being low, is low enough to leave you noticing the uneven script, which stumbles when it tries to introduce an exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig). She uncovers a governmental conspiracy and is the only white American character on screen. She’s also the only one who doesn’t need subtitles, with Anderson pointedly translating each bark for us humans, but only translating Japanese characters when it’s done via a news report or other diegetic device – something that adds to the alienating mood, even though it’s presumably designed to place us in the doghouse with our heroes.
The result is an entertaining but slightly underwhelming outing, one that sees Anderson’s usual tightness and polish buried underneath a layer of dirt. However, it still finds the director admirably pushing his own boundaries to find fresh surprises amid the familiar jokes – a hospital scene is almost shockingly gory – while delivering a timely reminder about the duty of humankind towards nature. Accusations of cultural appropriate have been made against the film, but there’s no doubting the well-intentioned affection Anderson clearly has for his story’s setting, and there’s much to admire and enjoy from the production design team – the colours and textures of this handsomely mounted world are gorgeous, while the intricate, multi-faceted score by Alexandre Desplat wears its influences alongside the movie’s heart (try saying the movie’s title out loud): on its sleeve.
Isle of Dogs is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £9.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 14-day free trial.
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