ISLE OF DOGS
My introduction to the world of American auteur Wes Anderson was 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, headlined by a with-nose Ralph Fiennes and featuring kickass performers like Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Jude Law etc. Apart from its narrative structure (a story within a story within a story within a story), the writing and the performances, what struck me about the film was the vivid colour palette, the symmetrical frames, the changing aspect ratios and the mechanical camera movements. While most filmmakers prefer to make the camera as fluid and invisible as is possible, Anderson’s style was exactly the opposite. He made the viewer aware of the camera. He wanted to leave not a trace of a doubt in anyone’s mind that what was unfolding on screen was a story and he the storyteller.
The film opens with a brief history of the Kobayashi dynasty – rulers of Megasaki city for ages – and their chhattis ka aakda with dogs. Moments later, we are introduced to Mayor Kobayashi, a Trump-like figure who despises dogs as passionately as he loves cats. Personally, I have always suspected cat lovers of being exactly like the creatures they worship; Kobayashi confirmed those suspicions. He then decrees that all dogs in the city will be sent off the mainland to the rather obviously-named Trash Island. To prove that he means business, Kobayashi begins the deportation with his ward Atari’s dog Spots.
I watched Anderson’s other stop-motion animation feature Fantastic Mr. Fox a couple of days back in order to acquaint myself with the technique of stop-motion and how a full-length feature can be made using it. While I found the entire world Anderson had created intriguing, the film was no great shakes. Isle of Dogs is the opposite of that. First of all, it has dogs, easily the best of all living beings. Dogs make the world a better place. They are miles better than human beings. Eight years of canine company has led to an improvement in me despite the obvious hindrances that come with being from my species. Secondly, as the boy of a dog (shall be one forever), I could relate to Atari and his plight at losing Spots. More interesting than anything else, though, was the fact that Anderson had managed to weave into this “children’s film” the political undertones of the times we live in. Kobayashi’s deportation of dogs mirrors the actions of the Donald Trump administration and makes the reality of it so much clearer. Similarly, the fear Kobayashi instils in his subjects is a phenomenon that is common across the world at the moment. The brain-washing of people to turn them against dogs is startlingly identical to the kind of religious polarisation and radicalisation that is happening around us.
Despite his smart, subtle political digs, Anderson slips up in a way that wouldn’t be expected of a director who seems so aware: a short scene featuring a fight between a group of good dogs and bad dogs (there are actually no bad dogs; these guys were hungry and they happened to be pitted against some of the film’s protagonists) reveals a bias that is a throwback to the old Cold War-era action thrillers of Hollywood. Here, the good guys have generic American names like Rex, King, Chief, Boss and Duke, whereas the sole bad guy who has a name is christened Igor. It takes only one such detail to reveal a chink in the armour of an artist like Anderson but the other one that pops up is even more surprising. It features an American exchange student who champions the cause of dogs against the Kobayashi regime. Here’s the thing: Megasaki and the dogs didn’t need an American saviour; a Japanese one would’ve served the film better. It just fuels the decades-long “America saves everyone” image that Hollywood has gone out of its way to create and one that seems out of place in a film by Wes Anderson, a disruptor of some sort.
The animation team directed by Mark Waring and the puppetry department led by Andy Gent pull out the stops with their work. Doing stop-motion requires tremendous patience and a great deal of expertise but it looks so wonderful with the efforts of these two teams and two others (production design and visual effects) that one can’t help but marvel at the visuals, which is one of the main draws of any Wes Anderson film. What should be noted is that the challenge here is greater than Fantastic Mr. Fox; Isle of Dogs has more elements, more characters and a far more complex landscape as compared to Anderson’s first stop-motion film. A word here for DP Tristan Oliver and his team as well for the numerous stills they lit for and captured in order to bring Anderson’s vision to life. The clockwork consistency the film achieves would’ve been impossible without Oliver and crew.
The masterful puppetry is matched by the acting. Anderson brings great performers on board only to take away their faces. It’s a testament to the talents behind the microphones that their voices have the same impact as their mugs. Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, the legendary Harvey Keitel, Frances McDormand and young Koyu Rankin leave the greatest impact, though the likes of Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson do have their moments in the sun.
The story – co-written by Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura and Anderson himself – is a heart-warming one and Anderson elevates it with his screenplay and direction. You know what path the film is going to take and how it’s going to end but Anderson ensures that your bum remains on the seat. He retains the quirks and eccentricity that define his style and often cracks you up with his trademark deadpan humour.
Isle of Dogs is a film for everyone. Young people and old people; cinephiles and entertainment-seeking junta; families and loners; dogs and…..well, not cats. Wes Anderson has kept it clean, mindful of the fact that the ears of impressionable canines should not have to hear the kind of curses M. Gustave dished out in The Grand Budapest Hotel. A lovely, timely film. Funny, political and with dogs in leading roles. Make sure to take your non-cranky babies (if you have any) along should you go for it. Which you should.