As Alfred Hitchcock once said: “self-plagiarism is style”. The writer/director Wes Anderson, whose best-known films include The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Royal Tenenbaums, has been self-plagiarising for some time now, and boy, is his style distinctive. He is, in fact, among the most visually distinctive auteurs working today. His idiosyncratic, teeth-achingly fastidious aesthetic is defined with labels like “quirky” and “whimsical” and references to scaled-down space like “diorama” and “dollhouse”.
Anderson prefers mise-en-scène over method, content over technique. He has particular ways of moving the frame (such as his signature tracking shots) but derives motion from stillness. His compositions are often starkly flat and symmetrical.
In Isles of Dogs, the director’s second stop-motion animation following 2009’s Fantastic Mr Fox, we are reminded of simple pleasures, such as left to right motion. This derives from objects moving inside the frame (like a train or a car) as well as the frame itself (the tracking shots) and even our eyes moving between visual components (in the film’s use of split screen images).
On a purely visual level, Isle of Dogs and the French documentary Faces Places are the year’s must-see films so far.
The genre of animation encourages Anderson to take an even more pedantic approach. Isle of Dogs has a cutesy, kitschy, impersonal aesthetic and its painstakingly engineered compositions are explored with machine-like movement. There are ways for human emotion to punch through Anderson’s spatial obsession. A flamboyant and/or droll performance, for example, might do – like Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel, or any of Bill Murray’s performances (such as in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou).
That punching through is not on the cards in the nevertheless delightful Isle of Dogs, which doesn’t have a human anchor – nor even a protagonist. Anderson attempts to tell a story not just from the perspective of dogs, but from the perspective of the species. He imagines a future where canines have remained man’s best friend despite terrible mistreatment. The film considers the difference between absolute loyalty and convenient companionship.
An outbreak of canine flu in Japan, in the fictitious Megasaki City, has led to all pooches being quarantined on an island of trash. The director resists framing the narrative in the obvious way: as a story about a boy searching for his lost dog, though that is certainly part of it. The quest of 12-year-old Atari (voice of Koyu Rankin) to find his beloved pal, Spots, is intensified because Atari’s father is the dog-hating Mayor Kobayashi. He is voiced by Japanese actor Kunichi Nomura, who is also a co-screenwriter.
The titular setting felt to me like the earth in Wall-E crossed with the central location of Dead End Drive-In: a trash and detritus-strewn future community, with its own politics and basic class structure. The dogs include gruff stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), former baseball mascot Boss (Bill Murray), former show dog Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) and the gossip-spreading Duke (Jeff Goldblum).
The film’s easily distracted storyline, which pogos between thought bubbles and non-linear digressions, incorporates Atari’s quest and the potential creation of a dog flu vaccine. It takes an unusually long time for Anderson to summon vision of a bento box, I thought, given these containers so perfectly reflect the director’s compulsion towards compartmentalised visual properties.
Many pleasures are derived from adding Andersonisms to Japanese culture.
The appointing of Nomura in key creative roles has not absolved Isle of Dogs from allegations of cultural appropriation. This feels inevitable in retrospect – certainly in today’s sensitive climate, with the Peter Rabbit movie accused of ‘food bullying’ and last year’s Beauty and the Beast remake accused of glorifying Stockholm Syndrome.
The Armageddon-for-dogs premise is a universal concept, so in that sense it is unusual for Anderson to base his story in Japan, a culture not his own. On the other hand, his playful approach feels respectful and even celebratory. Many pleasures are derived from adding Andersonisms to Japanese culture, such as watching the assemblage of sushi rolls, which combines a couple of his signatures: shots taken from above, capturing hands. I would be shocked if such flourishes were considered by Japanese people to be culturally insensitive.
On a purely visual level, Isle of Dogs and the French documentary Faces Places are the year’s must-see films so far. The former exists in a constant state of invention, the latter a constant state of celebration. Whether Anderson’s second foray into animation results in an even more fastidious approach to live action remains to be seen. I’m looking forward to finding out whether, when he returns to filming actual people, they feel, in his hands, even more like toys to play with and putty to sculpt.
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