In Megasaki City outbreaks of dog flu and snout fever have persuaded the (cat loving) Mayor to quarantine all dogs on nearby ‘Trash’ island. However, 12 year old Atari defies the authorities by flying to the island to save his beloved pet ‘Spots’. There he meets a group of abandoned pooches who pledge to help him and ultimately all the dogs in the district.
The first thing to strike me about Wes Anderson’s latest animated film, ‘Isle of Dogs’ was the colour. From the multicoloured fluorescent pop of Megasaki city to the often muted duotones of the island landscapes, the production design has much of what I would consider, with my Western eye, a very Japanese palette. This, in combination with the Japanese writing that adorns the imagery throughout, gives a sense of traditional graphic design, in particular Japanese art by Hokusai and Hiroshige. Stylish, to say the least.
Although influenced by Anderson’s passion for Japanese film making, notably the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa, this is just the backdrop of a vision which is inescapably his. It seems impossible not to draw comparisons with his other full-length animated film ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ (2009), as there is a great deal of shared ground, both in terms of style and substance. But for me, ‘Isle of Dogs’ was the better film by far.
Talking canines aside, both films are beautifully crafted, and the puppet design repeated aesthetics from the former – notably the use of textured fur. This approach, once shunned by stop motion animators due to the visible creeping motion left in the wake of the animator’s hands, has been popularised in recent years by directors, including Anderson. However, in ‘Isle of Dogs’ its treatment is less distracting, as this movement has the feel of being moved by a gentle wind, rather than something more inexplicable.
Although stop motion was the main form used, 2D animation also played a significant part in the storytelling, with several sequences rendered in a simple style reminiscent of those infamous woodblocks from the Ukiyo-e genre. In fact the 2D/3D crossover was well integrated throughout the film, with some 3D sequences shot with a very shallow depth of field, that kept characters both in the extreme foreground and mid-ground in focus, providing a flatness to the look that added to the graphical feel and nodded to Anderson’s often surreal visual treatment and off-kilter framing. (The latter only really jarred in those compositions that placed the focal character in the extreme lower screen.)
In fact, it felt very much as if many devices that make for a Wes Anderson (animated) movie had been better honed for ‘Isle of Dogs’ and more carefully considered in their appropriation. The pace and comedy was much sharper for me, and the use of middle aged American voice actors certainly grated less than some of the choices for ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’. The slight grittiness to the humour also felt more appropriate here, although perhaps due to my own expectations (and deep affection for) Roald Dahl’s gloriously mischievous and often grotesque sense of humour, which is in a stark contrast with Anderson’s more adult, dead-pan wit.
However, although I preferred ‘Isle of Dogs’ to its predecessor, I do wonder how Japanese audiences might respond. Certainly part of the (slight) disappointment with Anderson’s ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ for me was that both the book and its author hold a special place in my childhood and sense of identity. And although ‘Isle of Dogs’ is an original story, criticisms of its portrayal of Japanese culture have been voiced.
It was certainly exciting to watch a film in which another language is more equivalently represented, and as I cannot speak a word of Japanese, this felt positively intriguing and orientated me more closely to the dogs’ point-of-view. I also understood that the use of an English language speaking character was useful as the ‘meat’ of the narrative unfolded (as lovely as the translation devices were, these were far more time consuming and could have slowed the pace unappealingly as the story arced.) However, it wasn’t necessary for a white American to take centre stage, and it did feel somewhat contrived, as if pandering too far to a producer’s anxiety about whether the key demographic would ‘get it’.
Is ‘Isle of Dogs’ a family film? I’m not sure there’s a straight-forward answer. It’s rated PG, has no particular violence or sexual innuendo, and has many genuinely heartfelt moments that will appeal to kids. However it is quite complex is some respects, so might better suit older children who can appreciate more sophisticated storytelling. Overall, ‘Isle of Dogs’ is a highly appealing film, with a clever, stylish visualisation and warm characterisation that left me excited for any future feature-length animation that Wes Anderson and his team might create.
‘Isle of Dogs’ is in cinemas nationwide and will screen at Watershed, Bristol until at least 12 April. Find screening times and book your tickets at the website. View the ‘Isle of Dogs’ official trailer, behind-the-scenes with the voice actors and animator ‘making of’ on YouTube.