FOUR AND A HALF STARS Why has the Mayor banished dogs from Megasaki, and will his ward find his dog Spots?
Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton
ANIMATED COMEDY #ISLEOFDOGS
I didn’t like THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU. There, it’s said and while haters may hate me, regardless of popular lore, it isn’t one of Wes Anderson’s greatest moments. Defining perhaps, but not greatest. That we’ll award to THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL with ISLE OF DOGS coming in a close second. Anderson is now running near top of his game having carved out a niche of precision-cast whimsy all to himself. It makes for stunning cinema of a uniquely personal, exhilarating and thoroughly enjoyable kind.
Working in puppet and stop motion (see THE FANTASTIC MR FOX for an entree in this field), he again places children in command to right the wrongs of adult misbehaviour. In this case, the errant mayor of a Japanese city whose family has a long-standing beef with dogs. He also has a nefarious plot of his own which would benefit from the removal of all canines from Megasaki; and so begins a programme of deportation.
While there’s a nod to ethnic-cleansing and those clearer, saner heads that stood up to despotism, it sits background to the main event. In the foreground is a much lighter, more whimsical tale of a boy-and-his-dog as the Mayor’s ward goes in search of his missing pooch, a journey that takes him to Trash Island aka the Isle of Dogs. That’s if ‘lighter’ applies to a domain of sick, damaged and warring dogs who pine for the comfortable life they’ve been ejected from (see above re cleansing).
This is a much scruffier vision than many Anderson films, a director famed for his precision and artful placement. None of that is missing mind you, this is as precise and artfully composed as BUDAPEST or MOONRISE KINGDOM. The difference lies in the location; Trash Island is, well, trashy and the visual aesthetic is complimentary while also providing for terrifically realised machinery that runs the disposal operation: steam punk meets the 1930’s in future-Japan.
Yet for all the grunge and clanking metal, ISLE OF DOGS is, as you’d expect from Anderson, a beautiful and well-crafted film of fine texture. The story telling remains sharp and concise, the emotion rich and resonant, heart-warming in fact (which is some achievement considering his cast is made largely of resin). And as dog and despot collide, Anderson’s politics sneak into the frame with sharp, social messaging. Throw in a terrific score by Alexander Desplat, Midnight Sleigh Ride by The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra riffing on Prokofiev plus Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono voiced by Yoko Ono and you’ve got next year’s brain-expanding Oscar contender.