Isles of Dogs is a love letter to man’s best friend. Revisiting the techniques used in Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Wes Anderson has created a handmade feast of intelligent and dynamic stop-motion animation. The film is set in a dystopian Japan after Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) signs the Trash Island Decree: exiling all dogs to Trash Island. This is where we first meet the pack of alpha dogs: Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and King (Bob Balaban). They have all been dumped on the desolate island of rubbish, fighting for scraps, all the while sick with dog flu.
They soon come across the little pilot Atari (Koyu Rankin), who has crashed his stolen turbo plane on the island in an attempt to find his dog Spots. Compelled by his dedication to finding his dog, the pack decide to help him, except for Chief: the only stray of the pack is the least enthused to help. This is where the story kicks off, with dogs and boy searching the entirety of the bleak waste-filled island.
It is hard not to see the constant imagery of trash and waste as a commentary on the amount of waste created by man and the subsequent destruction is causes to nature. It’s a recurrent theme in the film: the dogs act almost as a metaphor for how we treat nature, abusing it for our own needs and then abandoning it to suit our own incentives.
Throughout the film the use of visual metaphor is rife. For instance, both Atari and Spots have head pieces which help them to communicate; however, it also doubles up as a literal visual metaphor for their connection and bond with each other. The heart of the story is expectantly found in Chief. Unsettled by the arrival of the young boy and his unexpected obedience, he is nevertheless where we find our emotional anchor throughout.
The film excels in expressing such deep emotion in the most subtle of gestures by a few canine puppets. The puppets were studies of nine dogs that were on set, thus each puppet has its own crafted unique walk, posture and body language so as to ensure no two dogs are the same.
A reason for why the pack decide to help the pilot is summed up by Rex when he describes that, unlike any of their masters, Atari against all odds had actually come looking for his dog. The dogs naturally respond to that kind of loyalty, making the film’s question ‘what happened to man’s best friend?’ even more heart-breaking. Unmistakably, the film is an ode to dogs, celebrating their unselfish and endlessly loving nature, as shown in Spots. Spots was the little pilot’s bodyguard dog but choose to love him – such is the pledge of the dog: to love unconditionally.
Sound plays a key role throughout, especially the poignant use of the whistle. Used previously also in Fantastic Mr. Fox, here Atari’s whistle is hauntingly beautiful. It is in this attention to detail which places Anderson’s films in a different league to others. They are consistently incredibly detailed, subtle and very symbolic. Each have a unique look but somehow all have an unmistakable unity.
Isle of Dogs is no different; distinctly Anderson but more daring that previous projects. It is a complex plot (most of the characters are speaking Japanese throughout with occasional translation) and thus the film relies heavily on the audience committing to it unconditionally from the start. However, you leave the film with a sense of the courage, loyalty and friendship which a dog promises to their master.
Image: Twentieth Century Fox