There are few directors who have developed and improved on their style over the course of their careers. Wes Anderson is one of them. In his latest film, Isle of Dogs, it seems the director has found his style. Despite the fact that it’s stylistically as perfect as it’ll get, some things get lost among it.
«Well, the answer is simple», a Warner Bros. representative tells me at the red carpet of Switzerland‘s Arena Cinema at Sihlcity, Zürich, «Wes Anderson just wanted to come to Switzerland, so we got a movie premiere.»
On a similar whim, I managed to suddenly become a member of the press, even though I was there just to watch a movie. A friend had tickets, I like Anderson’s movies, so why not? Nothing better to do. And suddenly, I was standing in the press pit, surrounded with pro photographers and other assorted journalists. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a journalist, but sometimes, I’m just a guy at a cinema, watching a movie.
That said, I will cherish the press pass I got for the event. Because Isle of Dogs is quite something.
The Final Form
On its surface, Isle of Dogs is an animated movie about a boy looking for his dog in a world where dogs are persecuted. Cue social message. We’ll get to that. But the overwhelming sensation I got from the movie was that this is what Anderson, the movie maker, has been working towards.
If you’re not familiar with Anderson’s work, he is a filmmaker who has a very distinct style.
- As many shots as he can managed are extremely centered
- He often mixes movie techniques, mixing hand drawn animation with live action and stop motion
- His characters are oddballs
- His stories are very small in scope, but feel very big
- More often than not, he takes something that exists in reality and then gives it a very faint whiff of fiction to remove it half a step from reality
- Often, his movies are described as «whimsical»
- It’s hard to pin the movies down to a point in history. Anachronisms are everywhere
- Wes Anderson rarely, if ever, uses visible CGI
In addition to that, he has a posse. Some directors have a group of people they frequently work with, which is commonly referred to as a posse. Christopher Nolan has Tom Hardy, Christian Bale, Cillian Murphy and Michael Caine, for example. Wes Anderson has:
- Owen Wilson
- Luke Wilson
- Bill Murray
- Tilda Swinton
- Jason Schwartzman
- A few more, but you get the point.
In the case of Bill Murray, the actor has worked eight times with Wes Anderson. This makes Murray’s statement of «it’s just working with a few friends» during the Q&A session shortly before the premiere of the movie that will hit cinemas here in May all the more believable.
Over the course of the ten full length motion pictures he has directed, Anderson has steadily been working on perfecting his style, making it into something that is so very distinctly his. I honestly don’t know where Anderson could go from here on out. Because by now, his frequent collaborators have adapted to Anderson’s style and in Isle of Dogs, their craft seems even more light and effortless.
And now, we will have Isle of Dogs. A movie about an island made of trash, dogs and Japan.
A Movie About Trash, Dogs and Japan
As with all Anderson movies, the story is quickly told. In Isle of Dogs, a young Japanese boy named Atari goes to look for his dog. That’s when things get complicated by circumstance, not by character.
Said dog named Spots has been banished to an island made of trash. Because, you see, there’s an island made of trash just off the coast of Japan. In the fictional Uni Prefecture, the Kobayashi clan has ruled for quite some generations and they really hate dogs. When a plague breaks out that makes dogs aggressive and unstable, Mayor Kobayashi passes a law that decrees that all dogs must be deported.
There’s opposition from the aptly named Science Party which claims that the Dog Flu can be cured. Because Uni Prefecture values an open and honest discourse, Dr. Ben Watanabe (Ken Watanabe) of the Science Party gets to speak. Nobody listens.
A few months after his dog’s deportation, Atari Kobayashi, the mayor’s ward, steals a plane and flies to trash island to find spot, pursued by a paramilitary force of dog catchers. The whimsy doesn’t end there, as once on the island, Atari meets a pack of dogs who were all alpha males in their lives before Trash Island and so they have come to establish some form of democracy among them.
Oh, and Atari has a rotor clutch stuck in his head.
The Downside of the Whimsy
If Isle of Dogs isn’t the most Wes-Anderson-y thing I have ever seen, I don’t know what is. However, there is a very distinct downside to the beautifully animated movie. It’s very obvious that Wes Anderson et al want to tell us something. Something profound. Profound being a word that Bill Murray keeps repeating during the Q&A. Now given his deadpan delivery of jokes and his general demeanor, nobody’s quite sure if he’s joking.
Maybe the profound thing Anderson wants to tell us is that we should listen to science over our beliefs. Or maybe that dogs are fantastic. Or maybe that love will persevere. Or maybe that we should keep on questioning those in power. Or maybe it’s about making friends. Or maybe that democracy is kind of a weird beast that might be slow but ultimately wins. Or maybe a commentary on fake news, a term US-President Donald Trump has coined, describing media outlets that are not on his message or generally a nuisance to his regime.
Or maybe it’s all these things.
After all is said and done and the end credits roll, I am certain that the movie has tried to make a point, but I’m not sure what exactly it is. Don’t get me wrong, I had a fantastic time watching it. I laughed, I felt sad, I wondered what the hell I was watching in parts. I left the cinema with a big grin on my face and I will most likely watch it again. But this nagging feeling that style pushes substance aside is not going anywhere.
Isle of Dogs is perfectly executed movie with a story that could have used a bit more polishing. Despite this all, I wholeheartedly recommend going to see this film, because they’re not made like that anymore.
Oh yeah, and the title can be read as «I love dogs».