Why Isle of Dogs is no shaggy dog story

Image copyright Twentieth Century Fox

It’s often been said – “if only they could talk”. Now, in director’s Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animation Isle of Dogs, the dogs do – and humans don’t come off well in comparison.

Anderson, the director of independent hits including Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel and another stop-motion, Fantastic Mr Fox, has assembled many of his usual collaborators, including Bill Murray, Greta Gerwig, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton and Frances McDormand.

He’s also added the voices of Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson and Liev Schreiber, for the film, set in the futuristic Megasaki City in Japan, which has a corrupt mayor who happens to be a cat lover.

“Fake news” is spread by the authorities about the dogs being a health hazard, and most of the city’s canines are hounded out of the city and exiled to a wasteland called Trash Island. There, the dogs must work together to avoid extinction and find their (still) beloved owners.

‘Powerful themes’

It is a comedy – but Bill Murray believes that “this is turning out to be a more important movie than first anticipated”.

He adds: “If Wes’s filmmaking is as good as usual, it will have an impact on all of us. It seems like the themes are very powerful right now, very appropriate for the time.”

Murray, the owner of a dog called Tim Murray, calls the animals “the property of heaven, there to enlighten us” and says he needed “very little persuasion” to make an eighth collaboration with Anderson, after starring in his films including The Life Aquatic and Rushmore.

Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban and Murray, who play literal underdogs Chief, Rex, Spots, Duke, King and Boss respectively, recorded their key scenes together.

Image copyright Twentieth Century Fox/Berlinale
Image caption Some of the cast of Isle of Dogs: (l-r) Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig and Bryan Cranston

“We got together only one time and we recorded it in this cabin room,” Murray recalls. “It happened to be a cabin in New York, though. We spent hours talking and barking and becoming more dog-like in the process. We had to unpack what we felt about dogs. It was a really unusual experience.”

Bryan Cranston, who plays the lead dog Chief, believes, like Murray, that Anderson has made a powerful point through a story of rhetoric and propaganda, in this case, against dogs.

“They get treated like garbage,” he points out. “This is a story of disenfranchised dogs, but that is also a very real experience for human beings in every country and walk of life. There are disenfranchised people, the throwaways. And the demagoguery of fear, the kind that leads all the dogs of Megasaki City to be put on an island to fend for themselves, is something humans are dealing with as well.”

‘Right for this moment’

However Anderson, who co-wrote the script with more long-time collaborators – actors Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura, plus producer Roman Coppola – says that a strong political statement wasn’t their first intention with Isle of Dogs.

“I wanted to do a film with alpha dogs, I wanted to do a film in a garbage dump, and I wanted to do a film about Japan,” he explains. “Somehow they all ended up as one.

“We said early on we needed to invent the politics of a city, and we knew there would be a mayor, a leader figure. We’ve been working on this movie since 2007 though, and recently we said ‘well, this now seems right for this moment’. There were tiny places where we got inspiration from real life.”

Isle of Dogs is crammed with Japanese culture, including haikus, taiko drummers and a bar on Trash Island made out of used saki bottles, as well as tributes to famous Japanese film directors – and a voice cameo from Yoko Ono. However, in the English version, there are no subtitles for any Japanese dialogue, as Anderson relies on much of it to be translated as part of the plot.

Image copyright Twentieth Century Fox
Image caption Anderson says he set the film in Japan because of his love of Japanese cinema

There has also been a debate amongst film critics about the director’s so-called “cultural appropriation” of Japan in the film- that, and most of the baddies being Japanese.

However, launching the film at its world premiere in Berlin last month, Anderson stressed that Isle of Dogs “is a fantasy version of Japan”, adding: “My feeling is this is a story that could happen anywhere at any time. We all have a shared love of Japanese cinema and that’s why it’s set there.”

The stop-motion animation was created a few miles away from the real-life Isle of Dogs, in London. Cranston, a self-confessed “dog person – I am allergic to cats” – believes the animation is capable of conveying a message that would be impossible for live action.

‘Lesson to us’

“The best nature of dogs is so simple – they want love and companionship and they are so loyal, and that’s the best trait in any human being. By making an animation with dogs, Wes exposes human traits using other beings and it’s easier to accept human characteristics this way than see them in live action.”

Murray points out that on occasions when his dog has gone missing, he’s “circled the neighbourhood, put out flyers, hired other dogs to track his scent, even spoken to dog detectives”. But Schreiber thinks that the experience of making the movie has made him re-assess his relationship with his dog.

“I never stopped to think how much I love dogs and how much I undervalue my dog’s companionship. He sits and waits for me to come home and it’s not a fair exchange,” he says. “There’s something there about dogs and their inability to communicate and yet their infinite compassion, there’s a lesson to us and each other when there’s no shared language or culture. If dogs can do it why can’t we?”

Isle of Dogs on release in the UK from Friday 30 March.

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