Wes Anderson is the ultimate Marmite moviemaker. His films are often wacky, always distinctive and mostly engaging. But his idiosyncratic style is one of the most polarising in cinema. For some, the quickfire dialogue and precise symmetry is perfect. But others can’t stand the quirk and call it twee and irritating. His latest project, Isle Of Dogs, is a stop motion adventure-comedy all about Japan’s pet pooches. It’s witty, absorbing and even his most vicious detractors will struggle to find fault.
Set in a dystopian, near future, the story follows Atari (Koyu Rankin) – a young boy who lives in a society afflicted by a mysterious illness. The dogs are blamed and as a result, all canines are outcast to a remote island of rubbish. Atari is distraught and teams up with a gang of flea-bitten mongrels to look for his own shaggy pal Spots. Together they face dangerous trash disposal machinery, lethal robotic hounds and a tribe of cannibal dogs hungry for flesh. In the end, Atari finds himself up against the cruelest villain of all – his uncompromising, pooch-phobic uncle and leader of their city, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura). It’s a family feud of epic proportions.
Initially adored by the critics, Anderson’s latest has had a rough ride recently. Accusations of cultural appropriation (most of the cast and crew are white westerners) have dogged the project. While others have criticised its lack of female representation – it completely fails the Bechdel Test (at least two female characters talking to each other about something other than a man.) Anderson himself has said his “big inspiration with the movie was to make it about what we loved in Japanese cinema” and that it grew into “something more to do with all kinds of Japanese culture and our enthusiasm for it.” He is yet to comment on the ensuing controversy.
Few have questioned Isle Of Dogs’ cinematic credentials though and the fans’ response has been overwhelmingly positive. From the all star cast to the lush visual landscapes, this is an exercise in excellence that will make your tail wag for weeks. As usual, Hollywood’s most off-the-wall auteur is joined by his regular cast of poker-faced comics (Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Harvey Keitel), plus a few newbies (Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Greta Gerwig) and they’re all willing converts to Anderson’s zany church. Johansson shines as high-pedigree pup Nutmeg, while Cranston’s deep drawl matches perfectly with the deadpan humour. It’s all beautifully realised in stunning animation that tops its director’s previous work in the genre by far. There might be ethical problems that need addressing, but judged on artistic merit alone, this is Anderson’s best work yet.