Wes Anderson’s second feature-length stop-motion animation is set in a futuristic Japan and is almost ten minutes longer than 2009 rural romp Fantastic Mr Fox – and we know how long ten extra minutes of screen time takes in this painstaking analogue process. Perhaps this says something about the director’s commitment to a project that he and fellow storywriters Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura worked up from scratch years ago, whereas Mr Fox was adapted from a Roald Dahl novel.
Fans of his live-action films will be more than familiar with the exacting nature of his visions and their predominantly symmetrical layout, with movement often scrolling left to right, or right to left, like a first-generation videogame (or, indeed, a scroll containing 13th-century Japanese art). In truth, there’s not that much difference between the two techniques. In human form, his cast is inclined to act as if they have been animated, and in stop-motion form, his animal characters take on wholly human characteristics.
Although its title will only make sense to those with a working knowledge of Tower Hamlets in London’s East End, it’s a concept that instantly captures the imagination, especially with pet owners. (It’s a phonetic pun, too – “I love dogs.”) Introduced and explained up top in a lengthy illustrated lecture presented in the decorative, calligraphic style – with vertical Japanese letter forms on boards that block in the frame – our tale begins with dog overpopulation and a resulting canine flu epidemic in the invented city of Megasaki, which turns man’s best friend into his worst enemy. A dictatorial mayor (voiced by Nomura) banishes all dogs to an island that’s essentially a rubbish heap, where they must live off scraps – or, it is rumoured, each other.
We meet five such exiled pooches, typically malnourished and unkempt, with haunted expressions but maintaining a keep-deadpan-and-carry-on spirit and describing themselves as Alpha dogs: Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), King (Bob Balaban) and nominal leader and former stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), who warns, “I bite.” Rescuing a boy pilot and ward of the mayor (Koyu Rankin) after he crashes on the scrap atoll hoping to find his own dog Spots, our quintet offers to help, and a picaresque journey ensues while the mainland sends vicious robot dogs to intervene. Throw in a groomed former show dog (Scarlett Johansson); a human American activist (Greta Gerwig) who hopes to expose mayoral corruption; a show-stealing pug (Tilda Swinton) who’s regarded as an oracle because she can interpret the TV; and an aboriginal dog (Harvey Keitel) fabled to be a cannibal, and you’ve got yourself a unique alternative universe.
It feels wholly, idiosyncratically unique, while paying affectionate homage to sources ranging from film-maker Akira Kurosawa and ukiyo-e woodblock print artist Hokusai to the children’s animations produced by Rankin/Bass (and made by Japanese artists) which will be familiar to American TV viewers in the 1960s and 70s, when Anderson was a boy. The score by Alexandre Desplat (who’s just won an Oscar for The Shape of Water to go with the one he received for Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel) is admirably East-facing, with drums and woodwind ethnically sourced.
While hardly as verdant and bucolic as the Buckinghamshire-inspired setting of Mr Fox and thus potentially harder to love with its themes of disease and despotism, Isle of Dogs has a character all of its own, right down to the constant canine sneezing. Less verbose and in many cases spoken in Japanese (the dogs, we are told in a caption, have been helpfully translated into English), this is a technical and artistic marvel, fastidiously detailed and beautifully lit, with Easter eggs sufficient to support further viewings.
Will the kids appreciate its hidden political depths? I’m not sure it’s even aimed at them. It’s certainly not aimed at cat-lovers, or indeed anyone offended in advance by the idea of an eastern tradition refracted through a white, western filter, whose heroes have American accents while the Japanese characters rant in a staccato manner that almost borders on parody.
Such niggles do not rob the film of its status as a work of cinematic art; the technical tail never wags the narrative dog. Long may Anderson adhere to his own high ideals.
Isle of Dogs is released in cinemas on Friday 30th March