For a certain type of person, the past month has most likely been filled with Isle of Dogs fever. Devoted Wes Anderson fans (a category in which I would unashamedly place myself) will have anticipated the release of his second stop-motion feature since its announcement, but the film appears to have steadily gained more traction with the general public through – appropriately for one of the running jokes of the film – word of mouth. I’ll be discussing not only the film itself, which is, as expected of Anderson’s work, aesthetically gorgeous and dialogically idiosyncratic, but the extension of the world of the film through outside media, such as the Little White Lies special issue of interviews and discussion, and the highly popular Store X exhibition of the film’s set pieces.

Isle of Dogs follows a variety of narrative strands, but centres around 12-year-old Atari Kobayashi, the nephew of the mayor of the fictional Japanese city Megasaki, in his journey to find and rescue his “bodyguard dog” Spots following the exile of all pet dogs to Trash Island. The dogs are, unsurprisingly, the true stars of the show, and many are voiced by frequent Anderson collaborators: Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton and Edward Norton are all present and accounted for. The two focal dogs of the narrative, Atari’s Spots and the aloof outsider Chief, voiced by Bryan Cranston and Liev Schreiber respectively, are the guiding forces of the film. Chief leads Atari and an eccentric band of followers across the island through the first ‘chapters’ of the film, and Spots doesn’t appear until fairly far into the narrative. For reasons which I won’t entirely spoil, the two dogs are very similar in shape, and despite this aesthetic doubling they each have distinct and defined personalities and backstories. One of the most moving moments of the film is Chief’s explanation of the brief period in which he was adopted, which reveals the origins of his embittered catchphrase: “I bite.”

Chief’s assorted group of followers provide much of the understated comedy which underpins the film, particularly the aforementioned running joke of Jeff Goldblum’s Duke gaining inexplicable knowledge through rumours because he “loves gossip”, but on the human side even the ominous assistant of Megasaki’s corrupt mayor, Major Domo (reminiscent of the equally eccentric and brilliant Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt), appears almost ludicrous in his caricatured appearance as a Gothic henchperson. Underneath the humour and poignancy, the film also subtly addresses contemporary topics such as fake news (although many of Duke’s rumours are inaccurate, one of them turns out to be true), conspiracies, and megalomaniacs.

Isle of Dogs will tug at the heartstrings of anyone who has, as the title indicates, ever loved a dog. Anecdotally, the first time I saw the film the entire backrow of the cinema, including myself, were loudly sniffling at several points. One of the central lines of the film, often used in its trailers and promotional material, comes from Scarlett Johansson’s Nutmeg in response to Chief’s initial reluctance to help Atari, giving the reason: “because he’s a 12-year-old boy. Dogs love those.” This unconditional love of dogs grounds what could have been a purely aesthetic endeavour with sentiment, and – spoiler alert – the fact that all of the dogs come out of Anderson’s narrative alive, if not unscathed, is a welcome change given that dogs have often been victims of fatal accidents in his filmography (The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom – this trope also inspired a 2012 New Yorker post entitled “Does Wes Anderson Hate Dogs?”).[1] Other touches such as the use of I Won’t Hurt You by The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, again used in trailers for the film, further emphasise what is supposed to be the unconditional love between humans and dogs, heightening the viewer’s emotional reaction to Mayor Kobayashi’s villainy. The song also acts as an audio signal of Chief’s evolution, playing just before his relates the story of the bite, and again after he has bonded with Atari.

Whitney Crothers Dilley has identified Anderson’s “central thematic concern” as focusing around “nostalgia, family, and loss”, but I think that in the case of Isle of Dogs this second category can be narrowed down even further.[2] At its core the film is, as with much of Anderson’s work, a narrative about found families and fighting to keep that family once it’s found. In many ways, it echoes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) in which a similar band of misfits follow a crotchety and jaded leader in search of a objective, in The Life Aquatic the jaguar shark, here Atari’s dog Spots. In fact, Zissou openly states in Anderson’s earlier film that: “We’re all a pack of strays. Don’t you get it?”, and in this mirror narrative that crew has been transformed into an actual pack of stray dogs. Quarantined or secluded spaces, again literally in the case of this film, are another common feature of Anderson’s work which is brought to its height here. Many of his films feature islands and boats – Moonrise Kingdom, The Life Aquatic – or transitional and liminal spaces – the hotel of The Grand Budapest Hotel, the train of The Darjeeling Limited, the school of Rushmore – and even short film work such as Hotel Chevalier and Castello Cavalcanti tends to centre around one location or self-contained moment. But Isle of Dogs is perhaps unique among these in the way in which its promotion actively encouraged viewers and fans to physically inhabit the space of the film, in particular through Fox Searchlight’s exhibition at Store X on The Strand.

Store X is a huge space, usually used for shows during London Fashion Week, which for a short period of time was transformed into the world of Isle of Dogs. Knowledge of the exhibition seemed to come initially through word of mouth before being picked up by websites such as Time Out, and on the first visit I made to the space on a Friday morning, the queue for entry snaked around two whole sides of the towering building. The following day, a queue had already formed half an hour before opening. It was, however, undoubtedly worth the wait. Upon entering the viewer is greeting with a life-size recreation of a Megasaki street, complete with ramen bar and seating. From there, the central warehouse space features a selection of landscapes and characters from the film itself, and seeing the incredible detail executed by Isle of Dogs’ animation team only adds to an appreciation of the film as a whole. It goes without saying that limited edition Isle of Dogs merchandise was available to commemorate the event, including t-shirts, script books, and exclusive pressings of the beautifully atmospheric taiko drumming (especially that of Kaoru Watanabe) which forms the core of Alexandre Desplat’s soundtrack. All of these features combined to give the viewer a truly immersive insight into the world of Isle of Dogs and Wes Anderson’s mind through the snapshots of scenes and characters on display. At the time of writing, the exhibition has been extended beyond its initial short run of a few weeks, presumably due to its popularity.

Wes Anderson by Laurène Boglio for Little White Lies No. 74 (@LWLies)

 

The film has been further supplemented by the special issue of Little White Lies which, following a call for illustrators to submit their interpretations of the film, created a collaborative homage to the film, dogs, and Anderson’s work more widely. The illustrations themselves offer yet another layer of creativity to Isle of Dogs, reinterpreting Anderson’s vision through their own eyes. Hannah Woodhead’s review in the issue illuminated many of my own thoughts on the film, and her concluding line describing it as “soulful, reflective poetry that’s etched on celluloid” acts as a strong summary of the overall experience.[3] The issue includes an interview with Anderson discussing his influences and ideas for the film, as well as testimonials from his frequent collaborators. One of the most noteworthy interviews for me came from Isle of Dogs’ lead graphic designer Erica Dorn, whose incredible work on the film speaks for itself, in which she manages to portray a sense of the enormous scale of detail in terms of individual pieces, and shares the stories behind developing the Japanese signs and newspaper articles shown in the film. The official Isle of Dogs social media pages have also posted a variety of behind the scenes videos, featuring the making of the puppets and giving viewers instant access and insight into the world of the animation studio.

Ultimately, Isle of Dogs as a standalone work is an astoundingly detailed addition to Anderson’s oeuvre in itself, but is also gratifyingly expanded upon by the wealth of extra media and personal access, especially through the Store X exhibition. Viewers going into the film expecting a purely visual experience are instead met with a profound meditation on the fragile nature of humans and animals, and one of the film’s final lines: “I’m not a violent dog, I don’t know why I bite” is one which I’m sure many can metaphorically identify with. In a film where detail is key, allowing the viewer to get as close as possible to the work can only add to an appreciation of the craft and deeper meaning behind it. One can only hope that the success of the supplementary aspects of Isle of Dogs leads more filmmakers to consider how the narratives of their work can be further developed as immersive experiences.

[1] Ian Crouch, “Does Wes Anderson Hate Dogs?”, NewYorker.com, June 21, 2012. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/does-wes-anderson-hate-dogs

[2] Whitney Crothers Dilley, ‘Introduction: Wes Anderson as Auteur – A History’, Cinema of Wes Anderson: Bringing Nostalgia to Life, (Perseus Book LLC, 2017): 7

[3] Little White Lies, No. 74 (Mar/Apr 2018): 10

 

Photographs taken of the exhibition by the author.

 

Advertisements