There is a beautifully immersive, almost fairytale whimsy that accompanies every film that idiosyncratic auteur Wes Anderson brings to the screen.
You know walking into a film like Isle of Dogs, his second stop-motion animation feature film after the Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), that you will encounter a world of his own blissfully eccentric creation where every detail is lovingly thought-out with an originality that delights at every turn.
It’s not for everyone, of course, but if you’re one of those people, and his fans are legion so there are a great many of us out there, who appreciates a wholly different view of the world that is both substantially intelligent and gleefully playful, not to mention cartoonishly-visual, there is a great deal to enjoy in one of Anderson’s child-like outings.
At his best, and he’s rarely not right on the creative money, his films are fables for our time, impishly-cheeky morality tales that look fey and cute but have a depth and cleverness behind them, entrancing the eyes and pleasing the soul while giving the mind a great deal to chew on too.
Isle of Dogs, a story of belonging, in guises good and bad, flawed and flawless, fits very much in this mold, taking us on a journey to a Japan we might recognise and yet which clearly sits just outside our experience just enough to challenge everything we know about the country.
In Anderson’s Japan,or at least the megalopolis of Megasaki, a few steps into the multiverse from our own, dogs are suddenly, by order of six-time incumbent Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), canine non grata, banished to Trash Island, just across the river from the city, condemned as the carriers of terrible diseases just waiting to cross the species barrier and infect humanity.
The heir to a long tradition of pro-cat, anti-dog sentiment, the story of which is told at the beginning of the film in an animated piece of exposition, worth the price of admission alone, senses this is his chance to take on his canine adversaries and rid Japan of man’s best friend once and for all.
Presented by Anderson with all kinds of fascistic imagery – there is the Rising Sun emblem of Imperial Japan and shades of Nazi rallies; not overdone but most definitely there – Kobayashi is a man determined to get his own way and manipulate the populace, who seem oddly and disturbingly willing to go along with everything he announces at his rallies, into not only sending the dogs far from their comfortable homes but perhaps killing them off for good too.
It’s dark, very dark, and Isle of Dogs doesn’t shy from being honest about the more dictatorial inclinations of the mayor, but the story has a lighter side too of course that emerges when we reach Trash Island, where Kobayashi’s nephew and ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin) has travelled to in a small prop plane to find and rescue his beloved bodyguard dog Spots (Liev Schreiber).
Crashing into the artfully-constructed surrounds of Trash Island, which though toxic and fetid looks magical in its own twisted way thanks to Anderson’s distinctive aesthetic, Atari, who is a little worse for wear with a small part of the plane sticking into his head, by a pack of alpha dogs who become the living, beating heart of the film.
Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), and Chief (Bryan Cranston) come to Atari’s rescue – although Chief, a stray without the human attachment issues of his pack mates, continually questions if they should be expending so much time on a boy, especially that boy – and commit, against Chief’s wishes to find and reunite Atari and Spots.
It’s at this point that the film, all loss and abandonment, getting outcast and being rejected, finds its feet as a film about what it means to belong and the lengths any of us, man or beast, will go to get there, and pertinently for dogs who have lost the only homes they have ever known, stay there.
Atari immediately finds a temporary home with the pack, who are hilarious, warmhearted and all-inclusive with even Chief finally coming around but only well down the track when he realises that he either needs to step up or Atari loses everything, and together they not only find Spots but attempts to reverse the hateful decree of Mayor Kobayashi.
No prizes for guessing where this all leads – Anderson might be offbeat and sublimely, pleasingly odd but he’s not a heartless monster – but before we get there, we get to get experience what true belonging feels like, beyond the treats and creature comforts that Rex, King, Duke and Boss discuss, again rather comically (the dialogue is heartfelt and hilarious in equal measure) and where the need for connection really becomes real and palpable.
In many ways, the journey to find Spots is a series of engagingly funny set pieces that excell both verbally and visually, but while Anderson is not setting out to make a serious movie with a capital “S”, he does have a few mildly weighty things to say.
Like the fact that really belonging to someone is a two way street – you should give as much to them as they give to you, and how when this breaks down as it does when all the owners bar Atari go along with Kobayashi’s decree of exile for their pampered pooches and don’t come to the rescue of their pets, or when Spots, when he’s finally located, tells Atari that he’s rethinking being his pet (at this point, Chief, who’s undergone a road to Damascus moment about being a human’s pet, admonishes him in a way that is moving and endearing).
On the other end of the belonging spectrum, we see how willing people are to relinquish things they love, in this cases dogs, but let’s say freedom and civil rights in a modern, real-world context, to go along with the status quo.
They could fight back, they could resist but they don’t, and even when two scientists Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) and Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono (voice by, yes, thank you casting gods, Yoko Ono) come up with a cure for the canine diseases that Kobayashi uses as the pretext for banishment, only one person, an Ohio exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), who fancies Atari more than a little bit, dares to fight for what’s right.
Others join her from her school’s newspaper but that’s about it and so a struggle ensure between those who choose to belong by inert omission (the vast, troubling majority) and those who belong for all the right reasons, in this case the dogs of Trash Island who go all out to help Atari, and right all the possible wrongs going, even when they have been unjustly treated.
It’s heartwarming and uplifting, and those you can accuse Anderson’s films of being a little emotional distancing with more quirky style than moving substance, that’s not the case for at least the canine members of the cast who beautifully communicate the delights and rewards of true, selfless belonging where you sacrifice for others rather than waiting for them to come to you.
Again, Anderson hasn’t set out to create some deeply meaningful polemic in Isle of Dogs which is typically light, fey, funny and quirky as they come, but he’s too intelligent and insightful a filmmaker to make everything look beguiling and not have something behind all the appealingly creative artifice which is a treat for the eyes, and in a world where selfishness seems to be in ascendancy, a balm for the soul.