The legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa (of Rashamon and Seven Samurai fame) was so obsessive about his set design that he made sure that any cupboard or wardrobe that appeared in a scene would be fully stocked with period appropriate items, even if the scene didn’t call for the cupboard to be opened. He also famously once fired real arrows at his leading man to get a more genuine reaction (Health and Safety wasn’t really a thing back in 1957). However even Kurosawa couldn’t have dreamed of achieving the kind of totalitarian control of the mis en scene (a poorly defined term used by the terminally pretentious to describe anything from set design to costumes), wielded the elfin Texan director and once and future prince of twee, Wes Anderson.
In films like The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson crafts and filigrees hyper-real worlds where every single prop and background action is seemingly painstakingly, eye-wateringly choreographed and storyboarded by the directors painterly eye. With sharp scripts full of wry and frequently biting humour, he is a consummate craftsman whose films stand out as defiantly personal in an era of frequently homogenised cinema. However, despite all of these points in his favour Anderson’s films frequently leave me cold. In much of his early work, whatever the ‘quirky’ plot and setting is, the basic story arc boils down to amusingly disaffected upper class American rediscovering childlike joy. As arch and amusing as his characters are, the sheer unrelatability of these characters helps keep the audience at arm’s length, a problem exacerbated by plots with anything resembling genuine stakes beyond whether an old man dressed in unusually brightly coloured will be able to reconnect with the similarly day-glo world around him.
This all changed with 2012’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (though his earlier Moonrise Kingdom showed the signs of this thematic sea change), a gloriously hilarious romp through a fictional Eastern European country on the brink of the Second World War. It was both a technical marvel which showed Anderson to be at an almost delirious peak as master of the mis en scene and legitimately screamingly hilarious, with Ralph Fiennes’s portrayal of Gustav H. fully having deserved the Oscar for Best Actor (presumably only being denied due to the Academy’s strange prejudice about comedy and horror apparently not being art-forms worth of awards) and, unusually for Anderson, full of darkness to match its light. The usual ridiculous bad guys were overshadowed by the dark and humourless threat of the encroaching fascists, the genuinely, violent menace proving the perfect counterpoint to Anderson’s more frothy delights and visual marvels. However, there are fans of Anderson’s early work who despaired of this new more story-driven direction and castigated The Grand Budapest Hotel as easily the director’s worst film (not an attitude I can empathise with or even really understand but plus ca change). As a result the speculation on his next film was intense, would he take a step back to his more quirky character based work, or continue down the road signposted by The Grand Budapest Hotel? Whatever people were expecting, it probably wasn’t a surreal stop-motion film about dogs that’s mostly in untranslated Japanese.
Bad things happen to man’s best friend in Isle of Dogs (though Anderson’s feelings towards the canine fraternity is never in doubt. Say the title out loud really fast a few times and you’ll see what I mean.) Set 20 years into the future, dogs across Japan are exiled to a tiny trash encrusted island due to outbreaks of ‘snout fever’ and are effectively left to die by the obvious evil cat loving government. The whole film is simultaneously wonderfully silly whilst taking its own ridiculous ideas completely serious (for example the government hate dogs because of an ancient war they waged on the dogs, “before the age of Obedience” as the sage dog narrating the manga-like opening sequence puts it) even down to its casually complex linguistic tricks which has the dogs’ barks “translated into English,” while much of the Japanese dialogue goes un-subtitled. Anderson has dabbled in stop-motion before with a rather outré adaptation of Fantastic Mr Fox, but here he goes for broke. He revels in the unreality of the medium (jerky movements, practical effects that come straight out of a child’s art box: puffs of cotton wool for clouds, raging Tex Avery-style dust clouds for fights) yet uses the total control of the world to crank up his control-freak nature to just the right side of hubristic megalomania. Why try and shape the real world to fit your absurdly complicated ideas when you can literally just build your own world from scratch? He even refuses to 100% commit to stop-motion, jumping between the aforementioned manga, to anime style 2D art whenever a character appears on a screen and huge painted tableaus for key story moments. As a result the film is a visual feast, rammed with visual jokes and the kind of small actions that would require a freeze frame and a serious case of OCD to uncover all of. Watching it is to feel like Anderson literally shoved a camera into his own brain and the resulting film has spooled directly from his cortex onto the celluloid.
The accusation of cultural plagiarism has been lobbed at Isle of Dogs and whilst Anderson has certainly been guilty of it before (mainly in The Darjeeling Limited) and certainly Isle of Dogs has put nearly everything classically Japanese into a blender and cast the result seemingly carelessly at the wall, Pollock-style., offhandedly working in sumo wrestling, Kabuki theatre, sushi preparation, samurai folklore, the woodblock work of Hiroshige and Hokusai, our old friend Akira Kurosawa’s chanbara and modern city films, kaiju-flick audio cues, and, through a typically propulsive, enchanting score by Alexandre Desplat, taiko drumming. The Japan that emerges is less exociticised than mythologised, the past and future of the nation’s cultural history curled around each other like a Mobius strip (though perhaps rendering all of the explosions as mini-mushroom clouds is a bit much). The script is typically sharp with plenty of laughs, but there’s something just slightly…lacking about Isle of Dogs that left all of the amazing work that Anderson put in feeling oddly unmoored, without a natural centre.
The first issue is that despite a typically star-studded cast, most of the dogs are unusually thinly sketched. If you have a pack of dogs voiced by Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Ed Norton and you don’t really bother to distinguish their characters from each other than something is wrong. The character who fares the best is Champ voiced by Bryan Cranston, seemingly the only dog on the island who was already a stray when the great dog exile took place. Disdainful of the other dogs longing for a return to their masters and possessed of a wounded edge (“I bite” he says almost ruefully several times throughout the film) he has more than a little of Humphrey Bogart about him and his romance with a Bacall-esque former show-dog voiced by Scarlett Johansson (“I don’t consider it my identity” she says of her previous occupation) is one of the strongest bits of the film. Unfortunately he and the other dogs are often subordinate to the central plot of the 12-year old ward of the corrupt mayor who travels to the trash island to find his beloved pet and of Greta Gerwig’s freckled American exchange student who works on the mainland to uncover the conspiracy that saw the dogs exiled in the first place. The fact that these two humans distract from what is ostensibly the dog’s movie is ironic in a film all about human’s abuse and marginalisation of the animals.
There is also something slightly unsavoury around the edges of the film, much of Isle of Dogs’s journey is Champ going from proud outsider to ‘good boy’ through playing fetch and the like. With all the dogs being able to talk and of human level intelligence (and Andersonian neuroticism) their fervent desire to return to a subservient position under humanity (to the point of never particularly blaming or even seeming particularly angry about their imprisonment and deliberate starvation) has something of a whiff of Uncle Tom’s Cabin about it which is by no means a dealbreaker but did play on my mind whilst watching. Isle of Dogs deserves to be seen, it’s a marvel of imagination, technical achievement and ambition but there’s still that nagging feeling that something isn’t quite right. Still whilst it’s not the towering success it could have been, it’s certainly no dog.