Wes Anderson is the quintessential auteur, creating stylistic films that reflect his own brand of history, period pieces, eccentric performances and popular culture. Though his films have sometimes been accused of winking at the audience a little too self-consciously, at their best, they are worlds that are perfect in their style, mood and logic.
Nothing suits Anderson’s unique brand of storytelling better than animation, where every frame is fabricated. His latest, Isle of Dogs, is a genre-bending masterpiece, altogether fresh yet inspired by cinematic staples ranging from film noir, 1950s sci-fi potboilers and classic army movies to more recent manga epics and traditional action flicks.
As he did in his adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson uses the stop-motion animation technique to create Isle of Dogs. In stop-motion animation, each character and object is physically manipulated and then photographed, one frame at a time; the illusion of movement is created when the frames are played as a fast sequence. The surprisingly old technique (dating back to 1897) provides a surreal aura to the action—the characters are 3-dimensional objects moving in a real space on constructed environments. The process is painstakingly slow and demands extraordinary craftsmanship. Teams of skilled puppet designers and set fabricators contributed mightily to the filmmaking. The exquisite details from the set decorations to the graphics permeate every frame. The results are nothing short of magical and looks quite unlike any film I’ve seen.
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The tale, written by Anderson and his long-time collaborators Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura, is set in a dystopian future Japanese city, where dogs have been quarantined by a ruling cat-loving tyrant unto a remote island due to a “canine flu” scare. A scruffy pack of dogs band together to help the tyrant’s nephew, a 12-year-old boy, search for his lost dog in the island’s vast garbage dump. With the assistance of his newfound mongrel friends, the boy begins an epic journey that will decide the fate and future of the city’s entire canine population. The quest provides the characters ample room for drama, self-discovery and action, plus a love story, in a quirky, understated Wes Anderson-sort-of-way. The dialogue is laconic and full of sly wit (yes, the dogs speak in English, while the humans speak in Japanese, translated by a narrator). The writers have created real characters who think and act with imagined canine motivations. And there’s not a single poop joke in this feature-length film.
The film and its creators have been garnering well-deserved accolades—director Wes Anderson was recently awarded the Silver Bear for best direction at the Berlin Film Festival. The voice cast includes a who’s who of cult talent—Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Greta Gerwig and Yoko Ono. The work of production designers Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod deserve special praise. One of the most amazing scenes details the preparation of a bento box, the depiction of sushi making that is simply spellbinding. As befitting a Wes Anderson film, the score by Alexandre Desplat is integral to the film, integrating elements of taiko drumming and Japanese woodwind elements into the music. And last but not least are the dogs—thanks to Andy Gent, puppet design supervisor, the canine characters have a scruffy, lifelike appearance that is soulful and heroic.
Isle of Dogs is not only extremely entertaining, it’s also culturally relevant, conjuring up a storyline that features power-mad politicians, battling scientists and youthful activists—in this case, for the control of a city’s dog population. Addressing the meaning of friendship, loyalty and taking a stance against power, the film exhibits Anderson’s trademark wit and wisdom, and a surprising amount of heart. Fans of the director and dog lovers of all ages will be dazzled and delighted with this soon-to-be cult masterpiece.
Isle of Dogs opens nationwide on Friday, March 23.