Cultural Bulletin
Cultural Bulletin is a quarterly magazine that provides an international view of creative work. We look to film, music, design and art as signifiers of our cultural moment.

In Review: Isle of Dogs

Director: Wes Anderson


If Wes Anderson were to write a novel, it would likely be a palindrome. It's no secret that he has carved out a reputation for creating films that are painstakingly meticulous in their design, visually stunning in their symmetry and instantly recognisable for their zany, offbeat comedy. Also, it's now becoming the norm that the Hollywood elite queue up to be given even a whiff of dialogue or screen time in his latest projects. Just one click on any of his recent IMDb links and up pops a definitive who’s who of arthouse stars. His previous project, The Grand Budapest Hotel, boasted a staggering four Academy Award winners and twelve nominees.

His latest feature, Isle of Dogs, is no different. In fact, this time, Anderson really has outdone himself - surpassing anything he’s made before in terms of sheer scale and artistic vision. He's distinctively created the film using a mixture of 3D stop-motion and 2D hand-drawn animation. Again, the cast list is jaw-droppingly crammed with acting royalty. Here we get Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum as a pack of dogs who have been exiled from a near-future dystopian Japanese city: Megasaki. They've been lumped on Trash Island by the malicious Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), with the desire to halt a spread of dog viruses and eventually eradicate the canine community. Kobayashi is an ailurophile who - after exiting a sentō - reveals a tattoo on his back, hilariously giving away his feline leaning sentiments.

The narrative centres around Atari Kobayashi (nephew to the Mayor and voiced by Koyu Rankin) and his quest to find his pet Spots - who has also been banished to Trash Island. Anderson co-wrote the story with frequent collaborators Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura and they have created a warm-hearted ode to Japanese culture, art and cinema - all things that have clearly inspired their past creative endeavours (Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog being a particularly strong influence).

Although Anderson has used stop-motion before (Fantastic Mr. Fox, 2009), the creative undertaking here seems on a new level. The animal puppets used in both films certainly bear a resemblance to each other: their facial features being expressive, able to convey meaning and humour, each of the animals having an individual personality. With the humans, however, there is a difference when comparing them to Fantastic Mr. Fox. Herethey have been created with a slightly translucent resin, causing a new, distinctive facial structure. This look adds to the glow and surprising warmth of the film considering we spend most of our time on a pile of discarded junk.

The film is a funny kind of funny. It does that thing when you're engaging in a particular type of stand-up comedy that’s impressive in how cleverly everything has been orchestrated but doesn't necessarily result in belly laughs - more smirks and knowing nods of appreciation. You find yourself whispering words like, ’clever’ and ’that was good, that was impressive’. There's also plenty in the way of political jabs and quips, most notably with a movement against the mayor being led by young exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig). During one of the many fights, one character deadpans: ’I can't get a clear shot. There are too many innocent civilians.’

There are two scenes in Isle of Dogs that make for pure satisfaction-cinema. We view both from above - Anderson giving us the eyes of the of that specific character for a few moments, allowing us to take in the movements from their point of view. First, we get a sushi chef preparing a meal that’s laced with poison. The second is a doctor performing a kidney transplant. These scenes showcase Anderson at his sublime best: the attention to detail, music and animation working in joyous harmony to create two highly enjoyable and utterly memorable moments.

Anderson is surely one of the most distinctive and innovative directors working today; even when he makes a film about dogs on an island of discarded, broken rubbish, it’s refined, uncontaminated and wonderfully put together. TS