Filthy, Hairy Bastards
Either you’re a Wes Anderson fan or you’re not. If you are, you’re a sucker for the artistry he brings to each story, the whimsy, and laconic, self-conscious dialogue. If you’re not, that lack of spontaneity (or the illusion thereof), and his arm’s length approach to characterisation, for no Anderson film ever truly made the heart sing, will be terminal to engagement; a stall there’s no pulling out of.
Isle of Dogs, a stop-motion animated movie set in Japan, a certain cultural distancing being a good fit for the filmmaker’s style, provides all the usual Andersonian staples – formalism, metatextuality, pretentiousness. However, if you’re inclined to look at it the other way, this tale of exiled mutts sent to an island in the wake of a dog-flu pandemic, who help the nephew of the corrupt city mayor find his lost pooch, is the antidote to anodyne Disney fare; the kind of cloying, confected goop that’s anaesthetising the brains of children and adults alike.
If you can get past the smugness – the hipster self-satisfaction that runs through Anderson’s oeuvre like a fart in a sewage pipe, there’s something refreshing about a story that incorporates cultural influences, rather than appropriating said culture (Mulan, Pocahontas, etc); a story divested of sentimentality or conspicuous emotional manipulation. The characters, all voiced by actors chosen for their sardonic shtick, Ed Norton, Bill Murray, Brian Cranston, Greta Gerwig – deadpan their way through, the antithesis of Robin Williams unleashed, or the syrupy naturalism employed in House of Mouse features to captivate younger viewers.
As ever, Anderson speaks directly and without apology to the harder of heart, the disaffected, the fringe, and they thank him with dream epithets like “auteur” and “wit”, though he’s probably too reliant on his influences to deserve the former, and there’s less of the latter than you remember.
Regardless, Isle of Dogs is a visually sublime and occasionally amusing story, likely to appeal to both sino and cine-philes. Yes, I know it’s set in Japan not China, but that pun doesn’t work otherwise and I rather liked it. This kind of self-indulgence, by the way, is the sort of thing Anderson’s offering.
There’s less material here than the great man believes, and consequently the film starts to drag beyond the hour mark, but it’s an artistically vibrant and lovingly-made watch that fans of the maestro will take to heart as further evidence of their cultivated sensibility. That said, Disney’s Robin Hood is still roughly 200 times better.