Sunday 8 April 2018

Barkipelago: "Isle of Dogs"

It's only a small pawprint forward, but Isle of Dogs is the first Wes Anderson movie to be founded on mess. After two-plus decades of rectilinear neatfreakery, this most buttoned down of auteurs finally looks to have abandoned some of his usual methods, or rather elected to scuzz those methods up a little. The new film, which returns Anderson to the stopmotion animation of 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox, unfolds and sprawls across a giant floating trash heap, a leper colony off the shores of mainland Japan to which the country's canine population has been banished after an outbreak of so-called "snout fever". In place of the pristine design of earlier Anderson endeavours, we now get a bric-a-brac aesthetic, mountains of detritus, mutts who start out looking pretty mangy and get mangier still, and an overall sensation of lived-inness - every last slipper on screen has clearly been worked over before being tossed to the dogs.

Fans may be reassured that this filmmaker hasn't entirely abandoned his trademark dryness: it's there in the recognisably wry interpolation of chapter headings, and the manner in which Anderson's "underdog dogs" pause for a beat before talking to one another like upstate New Yorkers lamenting the gentrification of their favourite neighbourhoods. These pooches are at their funniest early on, when the airs and graces of the voice performers (Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum) are held in balance against the basic-bitch characterisation. Pack leader Chief (Bryan Cranston) informs his charges, in no uncertain terms, that they make him sick, a feeling demonstrated when he turns his head to regurgitate dinner; his insistence that they stop licking their wounds in order to reorganise and find a way back to civilisation cues a cut to his audience literally licking their wounds.

Evidently, these are no cuddly Gromits nor adorable Marmadukes. One dog tears off another's ear in an early territorial dispute, and as a group, they tend to enter all too readily into cotton-wool commotions that recall the representations of fight scenes in a Beano strip. Alexandre Desplat's melancholy score announces Isle of Dogs as going for a more singular, indeed peculiar tone than most animated fare. Analysis of a black box recording turns up a kid pilot's last wish to be cremated alongside his pet pooch; every other character appears to be on the brink of death or the verge of tears. It was, let's say, optimistic of studio Fox to book the film into matinee slots, because there's no guaranteeing what holidaying pre-teens hopped up on Mini Eggs are going to make of it. At the public screening I attended, Isle of Dogs played out to a silence that suggested those present were either utterly bemused or mentally resolving to go home and snap up everything else this Anderson fellow has made.

There is, undeniably, considerable imagination at work here. The island plays host not just to towering ziggurats of trash but a thousand tiny sake bottles, an abandoned theme park, and an overgrown golf course, worlds within worlds. For much of the first hour, I found myself succumbing to Pixaritis - that desire to immediately watch the same animation play through all over again - although not strictly because the sheer weight of detail was pleasurably overwhelming, rather that much of it had left me, too, squinting quizzically: I wanted to better work out where the film was coming from. The offbeam line of approach informs the canines' very movement - they pull up in strikingly odd positions within the frame, then sneeze - as it does their mode of address. "I guess we'd be dead by now if anything worked," barks one as the pooches take a wrong turn through a malfunctioning processing plant, the kind of New Yorker cartoon drollery that passes for a joke in Anderson country.

It's the pauses placed either side of lines like these that lets the dead air into Anderson's films - they're meant, I think, to punch up the genius of the boy wonder pulling these quips out of nothing, but over the long haul, the archness of the construction undercuts the excellence of the design. That said, I'll take Isle of Dogs' forty-or-so minutes of amusement over whatever it was that was going on in Moonrise Kingdom or The Grand Budapest Hotel. One of my issues with Anderson's live-action ventures is that his obsessive quest for symmetries, his desire to pin down his flesh-and-blood performers, goes against the grain of his chosen medium. A blithe origami creation like Dogs, on the other hand, is so obviously the kind of thing he wants to make, and has some aptitude for, that you're happy to leave him to it. I suspect he's still chiefly pleasing himself and a small coterie of admirers, but with a little less smugness, a pinch less supplementary whimsy, US cinema's second most indulged director after Tarantino may yet produce something that merits pinning to the fridge.

Isle of Dogs is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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