There are two Wes Andersons: the first I like, the second I don’t. The first is one of contemporary cinema’s most gifted directors. Visually, his films are never less than breath-taking: Freeze any scene in an Anderson film, and its striking enough to be framed and stuck on a wall. This is why great actors queue up to work with him (and why Anderson acquired a regular ensemble very early in his career). His use of colour, composition, snap zooms and knolling are incredibly sophisticated. This rigorous aesthetic even extends to costume design, décor, music selection and typography (those credit sequences are on a par with anything produced by the great Saul Bass). Wes Anderson is king of the mise en scène.
The Anderson I don’t like is ‘Wes the screenwriter’. There’s no escaping the fact he struggles to create rounded characters; his world is populated with types, rather than people. Often he focuses on former child prodigies, who have a background of upper-middle class privilege. Ken Loach he ain’t. The Royal Tenenbaums is generally considered his masterpiece but the Tenenbaums are such a listless, self-absorbed bunch, they’d try the patience of even the Dalai Llama. Anderson often skirts the edges of tragedy; here there’s a suicide attempt, and a death but it all feels schematic, as if Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson used a ‘Screenwriting For Dummies’ book as their inspiration, rather than writing something from the heart. The only warmth in this hermetically frozen world comes courtesy of Alec Baldwin’s expertly modulated narration.
The Life Aquatic is similarly exasperating. The film revolves around a quest to find a killer shark: ‘I’m going to set out to find the shark that ate my best friend and destroy it’, says Bill Murray’s stoner oceanographer, Steve Zissou, though he appears motivated more by boredom than righteous justice. All the supporting characters seem to have inhaled the Zissou marijuana he indulges throughout, because there’s a serious lack of urgency to this particular hunt. At least Sharknado had dramatic momentum.
In Moonrise Kingdom, the marriage of Murray and Frances McDormand is in trouble but there’s no backstory to delineate how they got here. Daughter Suzy disappears with orphan Sam, and there’s a hurricane on the way but even with these odds, nothing much is at stake. Events motor along at the same leisurely pace. These are characters so inscrutable, it’s difficult to discern whether they’ve learned anything at the end. Anderson is so busy being arch,
he forgets to give them an inner life. The melancholy they experience is always presented at one remove.
Yes, these are serious misgivings. Quibbles aside, The Grand Budapest Hotel took me by surprise. It’s as elegantly constructed as a Faberge egg (who wouldn’t want to stay in a hotel this ostentatious?) More importantly, it’s a film with a proper story – essentially an art heist – and featuring characters to care about. The fictional Republic of Zebrowka is a country on the edge of war, and it’s this element which elevates the film to a whole other level. Anderson’s characters are too busy facing down the threat of military oppression to engage in narcissistic obsession.
Grand Budapest and The Fantastic Mr Fox are the only Anderson films I’ve liked enough to watch more than once, with the latter animation a particular pleasure. Anderson seems intuitively suited to this medium: his ninth, The Isle of Dogs, is another stop-motion affair, and sees him fulfilling all of that erratic promise. It’s an exuberant synthesis of charm, whimsy and pathos – a film that surprises and delights in equal measure.
Set in near-future Japan, and the fictional city of Megasaki, it’s a quietly resonant examination of a world in which the government conceals its crimes, and uses disinformation to distract the populace from the truth. How very now. The scapegoats in this case are dogs, infected with man-made diseases like dog flu and snout fever, and exiled to a toxic wasteland known as Trash Island. One of these is Spots (Liev Schreiber), the dog of 12 year old orphan boy Atari (Koyu Rankin), ward of corrupt Major Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura, also co-writer). Atari steals and pilots a plane to the island, in the hope of finding his best friend. In his mission, he is assisted by a motley collection of mutts, including Chief (Bryan Cranston, excellent), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum).
Back on the mainland, a resistance is growing against Kobayashi on two fronts: Professor Watanabe (Akiro Ito) has found a serum to combat the flu but is placed under house arrest; American exchange student Tracey (a slightly manic Greta Gerwig) smells a cover-up, and arranges an anti-government protest. The film arrives post-Florida shooting, and can’t help but catch the spirit of angry teen rebellion: adults are too greedy and compromised to initiate real social change, so why not let the kids do it? Or the dogs, for that matter.
It isn’t always cute. There’s vomit and tics. In one of the many fights, an ear gets bitten off. A lot of the sharp edges come from grubby stray Chief, a dog with major trust issues. ‘I’m not your pet’, he growls at Atari, refusing to fetch a stick, ‘I won’t help you, I don’t like you. I bite.’ It takes purebred Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson, another inspired casting choice) to help him get in touch with his softer side.
The hike across Trash Island is wonderfully gripping. On the way, the doggy crew meet the maven-like Jupiter (F.Murray Abraham), and pug sidekick, Oracle (Tilda Swinton), who has an ability to understand human behaviour because she watches television. There are rumours about a gang of cannibal dogs, patrolling the North of the island, led by scary Gondo (Harvey Keitel, making a memorable third act appearance).
The island itself is a wonderful creation – beautifully photographed by Tristan Oliver, who also worked on Mr Fox – with mountainous piles of metal, stagnant, sunlight dappled ponds, and an abandoned amusement park. Rats frequent the foreground, whilst flies hover near the skyline. There are enough teasing questions about the island’s history to justify a prequel.
Apparently, it takes an animator one day to create two seconds of film. Isle of Dogs should be jointly credited to Anderson and animation director Mark Waring, whose talented team does most of the heavy lifting. Their eye for detail extends to individual dog hairs moving in the breeze, and slow falling cherry blossom.
Anderson has been criticised in some quarters for racial stereotyping and appropriation. The director takes a pick n’ mix approach to Japanese culture throwing in Haiku’s, sushi, kabuki theatre, and sumo wrestling. Is this insensitive? The question is probably best answered by Japanese audiences; I wouldn’t presume to know how they will feel about any of this. Though clearly the same story would have worked just as well in an American setting. Thankfully, Anderson has had the good sense to cast Japanese actors in many of the human roles, even finding room for an odd Yoko Ono cameo.
Dogs are social by nature. All they require is play, food, and companionship; in return, they give unconditional love. Anderson and Waring recognise the bond between human and animal is something special, and there are numerous scenes of both struggling to suppress their emotions. Even ultra-independent Chief realises he can’t carry on living the life of a loner forever. Isle of Dogs marks a turning point in Anderson’s career – he’s made a movie in which tears flow freely. Isle of Dogs is filled with warmth and beauty, and I totally loved it.
Wes Anderson has made his first masterpiece.
Review by Steve Timms
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