Wes Anderson is a unique filmmaker and one of the few directors today who can stake a claim to the ‘auteur’ label. He remains true to his aesthetics; demanding perfection frame by frame, harvesting an obsession with centralising a shot and crafting colourful worlds bursting with vivid characters and detail. It’s also his scripts (with regular collaborators) that pack a punch with witty, comedic and often poignant dialogue. Regardless of all of these traits from the days of Rushmore and beyond, the true brilliance of Anderson comes from never really knowing where he’s going to next. In this instance Isle of Dogs; a stop-motion animation set in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki in the near future.
Revisiting the charming, old-school approach to animation he utilisied to great acclaim in 2009’s Fantastic Mr Fox, the film follows a motley crew of dogs who have, by executive decree passed by Mayor Kobayashi, been exiled onto ‘Trash Island;’ a veritable wasteland of paper, leftover food and garbage. The main squad are all voiced by Anderson-regulars: Bryan Cranson, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Edward Norton and Bill Murray. Indeed it’s hard not to assume that Anderson had the actors in mind for each role as they are perfectly suited; from Cranson’s embittered ‘stray’ with heart, Chief, to Edward Norton’s neurotic and argumentative turn as Rex. The rest of the cast glitters with Hollywood and indie personas; Greta Gerwig is a welcome addition as ‘show dog’ Nutmeg and Tilda Swinton’s turn as Oracle, a pug who can ‘see into the future,’ is a scene-stealer.
Early on, Atari, the nephew of Mayor Kobayashi, crashes (with a beautiful shot entwined with smoke and puffy cloud) onto Trash Island in order to find and rescue his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). The pack, although doubting the feasibility of the venture, decide to help him with his quest and they set off for an adventure that takes them beyond the confines of their home.
The script rolls off the tongues of both the canine cast and the Japanese humans, who speak mainly in their native language. Quick wit runs throughout but the film has heart; there are award-worthy moments of poignancy brought alive by the subtle facial animation, including a scene where Chief talks about how he was once adopted but cast out once again when he (literally) bit the hand that fed him. Anderson enjoys conversations, and this is reflected in the way he records the dialogue; getting the main players together as much as possible for readings so that we’re left with riffing, interruptions, smart pacing and a naturalistic approach to the speech that propels the animation forward. The physical filming of the animation was shot at 3 Mills studio in East London; the guys who have previously worked on Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie and yes, Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox. Clever manipulation of the models, for example the gentle running of the animators hand through the fur of the dogs to create a subtle ruffle of the breeze, is painstaking in it’s detail. The team at 3 Mills were constantly in contact with Anderson for approvals on everything made for the film and received references including a lengthy list of Japanese cinema from the 1940s onwards to immerse the filmmakers with the desired style and aesthetic as much as possible. Animators worked on average for a week for two seconds of a shot.
With over 200 sets built for the film in total, it takes more than one viewing to catch everything that Anderson wants us to see. On Trash Island, every piece of strewn paper has detailed writing in Japanese hand, the sets are full to the brim of references to Anderson’s favourite Japanese objects. Setting the film in the near future, however, has allowed him to play with the look and tone of the film and not have to be too faithful to the Japan of today. It melts the past and future whilst keeping the spirit Anderson fans look for when flocking to his films.
A film with heart, soul and generous amounts of quirky personalities, Anderson has created yet another masterpiece, bought alive with a fantastic medium that both children and adults will enjoy. A work of art.