Wes Anderson is not known for thematically heavy films. That’s not to say that his movies are all fluff and folly – although they might look it, they certainly have deeper meaning. It’s rather that the revered director tends to focus on personal drama, the minutiae of everyday life, and what makes people tick - usually to great comedic effect.
His latest effort, Isle of Dogs, which opened the Berlinale last Thursday, is undoubtedly his most political movie yet, but that’s not to say it isn’t loaded with all of the director’s usual quirks. It’s actually a very mature outing from Anderson, highlighting his growth as a filmmaker and storyteller, and dare I say it it’s possibly his best film yet.
Set in a dystopian Japan 20 years into the future, the fictional city of Megasaki has reached canine saturation while dog flu threatens to cross over into the human disease pool. Authoritarian Mayor Kobayashi outlaws all dogs and exiles them to Trash Island. The Mayor’s nephew, Atari, determined to find his best friend and former personal bodyguard-dog, Spots, travels to Trash Island setting off an epic adventure that could decide the fate of dogs forever.
From it’s timely message to it’s technical finesse, here’s why Isle of Dogs is a must see.
I’m not going to start an argument about which is better: the canine or feline kind, but bear in mind that only one holds the nickname “man’s best friend.” Or as Bill Murray, who voices one of dogs in the film so eloquently puts it: “They are the property of heaven, I think. And they’re here for the purpose of enlightening the humans that are their caretakers.”
Whatever your thoughts on this age-old question, one thing that’s undoubtable is that an animated film set in a dystopian future and featuring a cast of both humans and dogs of all breeds is a genius idea that’s as fun as it is original. It’s truly a homage to man’s best friend, with Anderson explaining the germ of the idea:
“We wanted to do something sort of futuristic. We wanted a pack of alpha dogs who were all the leader. And we wanted to live in a land of garbage. The Japanese setting came entirely because of Japanese cinema. We love Japan, and we wanted to do something that was really inspired by Japanese movies, so we ended up mixing the dog movie and Japan movie together.”
Because a director’s homage to Japanese cinema often produces their finest work
It’s a subjective point so bear with me, but in my humble opinion Kill Bill (both films inclusive) is undoubtedly Tarantino’s magnum opus. Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation, while subtler in grandiosity, is also her best work. There’s something about an American auteur’s homage to Japanese cinema - creating original work that is elevated by their profound love for the culture's filmmaking - which pushes them to their limits and winds up making a mark on both film history and their personal track record.
Anderson has expressed from the get go that Isle of Dogs was heavily influenced by Japanese films, specifically those of master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa.
“We think of it as referring to a whole range of Japanese filmmakers and Japanese culture, but Kurosawa is the main movie influence,” he explains.
There are also strong references to Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki and his fantastical adventure film tradition, as well as aesthetic references to historical 19th Century Japanese woodblock prints, namely from artists Hiroshige and Hokusai.
The film’s graphic designer, Erica Dorn, explains: “The world of Isle of Dogs is kind of an alternative reality. It looks and feels like Japan, but it’s a slightly dreamier version, a slightly more Wes Anderson version.” And we’re 100% here for Anderson’s take on a semi-fictional Japan full of dogs.
Because it’s probably the most fun politically themed film in recent memory
There’s a lot to unpack in Isle of Dogs. And depending on how deep you want to go, it can be interpreted many ways. At surface level storyboard artist Jay Clarke sums up that: “No matter what is going on visually, at heart this is an adventure film about a boy and his dog,” which is one of the truest forms of love and loyalty that can exist.
But moving beyond that it’s also a tale of the literal underdogs in society – how a government can create propaganda to marginalize one group, leading to segregation and exploitation. It’s not only relevant to what’s happening in today’s global climate but I found myself noting similarities to the Holocaust, with the film’s representation of propaganda (and visual execution of such) eerily similar to Nazi Germany. Furthermore the film’s titular island of exile echoes the Nazis’ Madagascar Plan.
It’s treated with a light touch although still respectfully (it’s a Wes Anderson movie after all), but the overall message – a rejection of intolerance – is clear. Anderson explained at the film’s Berlinale press conference: “We knew there was something happening politically [in the film]. It’s where the story came from, and what happens in the movies, it’s our fantasy of the politics in this made-up place. But then, because we have been working on this movie for a long time, the world began to change in the movie and we all said it feels right for the moment, so maybe there were tiny places along the way where we were getting new inspiration from real life.”
Because it pushes the creative limits of filmmaking
The painstaking detail that is entailed in crafting a stop-motion animated film is perhaps the most laborious of all visual media. Long before the prolonged shooting period, wherein each frame must be individually captured (that’s 24 per second), there is the creation process of every set piece. This includes puppet-making where multiple replicas of each character are built in various sizes, all starting with a moveable metal skeleton and followed by a “furring” process for the canines and an innovative approach to the humans.
“The translucent resin gives you a lovely glow about the face. Wes wanted this sort of ethereal look to some of the characters, so that came directly from him. He wanted us to find a new way of using materials that hadn’t really been done before to show this kind of glowy look,” explains Angela Kiely, Head of Paint in the puppet department.
Anderson’s love for physical set design was once again pushed to the limits, with every element constructed in 3D rather than relying on post-production CGI. That means floating clouds are cotton fluff, rivers are made to flow with miniature conveyer belts of sandwich wrapping and so on.
Portions of the film (mostly newsreel montages) are realized through 2D hand drawn illustrations rather than stop-motion. Besides allowing the filmmaker’s more freedom to show these parts of the story, the Japanese anime-influenced imagery adds an extra layer of storytelling and visual texture to the finished film.
The film’s unconventional approach to language further adds to it’s quirkiness and originality. It’s stated at the beginning of the film that while every Japanese character speaks in Japanese, the dogs’ barks have been translated into English. However instead of subtitling the Japanese characters, Isle of Dogs makes use of a UN-style English translator in the film’s press conference scenes (voiced by the smooth-talking Frances McDormand) and in some cases forgoes translation altogether, allowing the emotion of the spoken Japanese to add to the story rather than understanding the words themselves. It’s an audacious move that pays off, allowing the audience to remain transfixed in the film’s world.
Because it’s Wes Anderson at his best
Wes Anderson’s cinematic style is arguably one of the easiest to pinpoint. A single image from almost any of his films has the power to evoke instant recognition of his work. He’s well established as a director, displaying impeccable felicity, while his new ideas continue to top his previous body of work, progressing him forward.
It is little wonder then that Isle of Dogs - while simultaneously being his most challenging film to date - is also his best. It has all the trademarks we’ve come to love from him: stellar ensemble cast (Scarlett Johansson, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bryan Cranston, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Yoko Ono, Frances McDormand, Greta Gerwig, Live Schreiber, Harvey Keitel) a beautifully designed Andersonian world, comedic gaffes which highlight what it is to be human (or canine), master storytelling which transports the audience into a charming fantasy land, and a technical brilliance confirming he is one of the best directors working today as well as the undisputed king of stop-motion animation.
It’s refreshing to see him tackle a slightly weightier topic this time around, which he’s proven he can do while delivering the same level of enjoyment and childlike fervour to audiences.
'Isle of Dogs' will be released in theaters on March 23. For more on Japanese cinema, read up on Akira Kurasawa's 'Seven Samurai.'