Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton
Length: 1hr 41m
There certainly was a wave of hounding excitement surrounding the recent release of Wes Anderson’s new feature, Isle of Dogs, that proliferated into British cinemas on the 30th March. Anderson’s artful, fun and stylised directing combined with a tale of quarantine canines trapped on a dystopian trash island was curious enough for his fans and foes alike. The trailer was signature Anderson with its strong characters, deadpan humour, masterful pausing, close-ups and crafty settings.
Certainly, Anderson has exceeded some of the best loved features of his current repertoire. This is to his second animation following a recreation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s story Fantastic Mr Fox. It also comes with the same mix of charm and darkness that fascinated many in 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Both of these relatively recent releases helped catalysed Anderson’s rise towards being a household name. Isle of Dogs provides the audience with all of Anderson’s visual thrill, warmth and wit but with a new dimension: embedded social realism, commenting on current and historical political issues and action that give the feature an underlying narrative insight.
Throughout the film, the audience are presented with the gritty reality that the dogs face: out-casted onto the island from a government-backed suppression of the quickly spreading dog-flu and snout fever. The once-assimilated friends of human households are suddenly blamed for this societal disturbance, brutalised by the media, and eventually by the law itself, and removed to the uninhabitable trash island. Anderson cleverly characterises the island’s new dog population. Despite the alpha anxieties and quasi-canine gang culture, the dogs are deflated, fearful and betrayed by man, their supposed best friend. The close-up shots of their collars help establish a human-pet bond through the screen.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the sea, far from this ‘canine ghetto’, the municipal court continually preaches hate and delineates the city’s social wrongs onto the dogs. The Megasaki’s mayor is characterised as a dictator through a red Stalin-esque colour scheme and ferocious speeches that certainly parody past historical regime. The Megasaki citizens speak in their native Japanese tongue – purposefully un-subtitled. Anderson has remarked that while, “you don’t understand the language…you understand the emotion.” Therefore, the regime is made to seem purposefully foreign and enigmatic in comparison to the relatable characters of the dogs.
Anderson also negatively comments on current technological advances at various points during the film, presenting it as a human regression. “I can’t smell him,” repeats Chief, the ‘alpha’ dog, at various points when describing the monstrous machine dogs invented by the Japanese government. His sensual displacement and unknowingness about the electronic dogs incites a fear of technological modernisation, as man’s new best friend becomes machine. The betrayal Anderson surfaces is likewise exposed in the governmental animal-testing laboratories. The tiny cages and clinical light anticipate the danger behind medical technological advancement. This all seems very relevant in today’s world.
Anderson goes on to present the spirit of youth through the characters of orphan Atari (Koyu Rankin) and American exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), both of whom create a bridge between the brainwashed human populace of Megasaki and the discarded dogs of trash island. These two school-age youths are both especially vulnerable, Tracy as a foreigner to her host land, and Atari as an orphan who has undergone physical and mental injury during his short life. In their disobedience to the system, whether it be a dog rescue mission in a make-shift plane, or more traditionally, rallying with placards amongst student peers, Anderson displays the impact of the resilience of the few against tyranny.
This film may seem resonant with politics, but it cannot go without saying that it is equally intimate as a narrative. The survivalist spirit on the abandoned island, the comradeship of the pack and the loyalty of the dogs to twelve-year old Atari are just a few examples of the humanity intact in such a dismal and melancholy environment. The Isle of Dogs is not only the next chapter in the distinctly stylised and exciting films of Anderson’s career, it is a complex film that reflects upon history and the current world, and also provides a narrative we can both relate to and learn from.