by Thomas Harris
Turns out that there can be too much of a good thing. Wes Anderson, crown prince of first year art students and A-Level film grads litters Isle of Dogs with his trademark pastel colours, his symmetry, those droll readings of lines that reduce actors to mere flesh puppets. At his best, Anderson is a deeply emotional, personal director – Moonrise Kingdom and The Royal Tenenbaums his finest and clearly emotionally engaging pictures – and at his worst, a director of little more than façade.
Isle of Dogs falls into the latter camp. Like The Darjeeling Limited, his misjudged boys-on-tour road trip, there’s a certain piggybacking on culture, barely scratching the surface and using – Japan in this instance – for little more than aesthetic purposes. Anderson clearly has love for the culture, Kurosawa in particular, but he tries all too little. Impressively animated shots of sumo wrestling and the intricate beauty of sushi making scream tourist.
It maybe has most in common with Anderson’s bastardised father/son tale The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, a feature length advert for red beanies and limited edition Adidas trainers. There’s an attempt at building on relationships, but Anderson is distracted by stop-motion fish and playing around on a big boat.
Koyu Rankin is Atari, an orphaned 12-year old boy living under the steel fist of his “distant uncle” Mayor Kobayashi, a dog hating megalomaniac. His hate for all things pup leads to all dogs, supposedly infected with dog flu and snout fever, being banished to Trash Island. Atari ups and leaves in search of his dog “Spots.” Upon landing, he meets Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and their stray leader Chief (Bryan Cranston) who agree to help find Spots and bring about a dog revolution.
For a film built around the relationship between dogs and their owners, it’s all too unemotional. Atari’s rescue mission means little when Anderson gives us little to show the relationship before his disappearance. Be it for a flashback showing Atari and Spots meeting for the first time, we are aware of little between the two. It’s a similar situation between Chief and the gang. Only Norton and Cranston are given enough lines for the audience to become attached. The absence of Goldblum, Balaban, and Murray begs the question as to whether Anderson could bring them all into the same room.
There’s further emotional detachment when around the dogs. Their personalities are entirely interchangeable and the Anderson-ism of drolly reading lines only blurs the line between them.
It’s an issue with the aesthetic. The majority of the dogs are all too similar looking with only the female dogs, all slender and made up, made to stand out in the crowd.
Human characters suffer from literal lost in translation. For reasoning beyond me, Anderson allows the dogs to speak English whilst humans speak Japanese without subtitles. Frances McDormand appears sporadically as a translator but this exists as simply lazy storytelling. The majority of humans are Japanese, and reducing them to little more than anonymous figures without context is isolating and uncomfortable.
The plotting too is sporadically incoherent, with the world – although stunning to look at – defined by a set of rules far too loose. Humans don’t understand dogs until they have to, dogs don’t understand humans until the plot demands them too and character motivations, in particular Mayor Kobayashi, are jumbled and peculiarly poorly set out.
Isle of Dogs finds Anderson at his most vacuous. At 100 minutes it drags desperately and at times feels more like we’re intruding on Anderson playing with his toys. It feels more pastiche, a feature length attempt at recreating Anderson’s imagination in the most unremarkable, forgettable way.
Isle of Dogs is out in cinemas now!