GFF 2018: Isle of Dogs

Wes Anderson’s much-anticipated new feature, Isle of Dogs, received its European premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival this week. The Texan director isn’t a stranger to the city, having also debuted Grand Budapest Hotel at the GFF in 2014, and his reputation for fun, humour and artistry now precedes him. He has proved to be a celebrity with cinemagoers to the festival this year, his name being whispered excitedly in almost every coffee shop from Argyle Street to the West End.

It’s a pleasure, then, to be able to confirm that Isle of Dogs is a colourful, charming and biting entry into his body of work. It’s a passion project, evidently; it has texture, substance and a huge heart, a loveable sense of goodness which mellows and softens the film’s edges. Whilst feeling tightly-bound in structure and form, it still feels at liberty to meander, ponder and extrapolate philosophy, with the aim of proving that mankind can be kind and protective and moral, even when having resigned themselves to shutting those characteristics out.

These ideas are explored against the backdrop of Trash Island, home to nothing but, well, trash – and the canines who have been exiled there as a result of the dog-flu outbreak which has taken over the city of Megasaki. Mayor Kobayashi (seen most of the time with a cat on his lap) seems hell-bent on eradicating the existence of dogs altogether. There’s a fair amount of political subterfuge in his treatment of the researchers and scientists who have discovered a cure for this disease, and his manipulation of the public, to insinuate that his reign isn’t an entire legitimate one. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Anderson himself confessed that while the ideas and characters in Isle of Dogs came from the imagination, they began to embody and reflect events currently taking place across the world.

Kobayashi’s nephew, Atari, is grieving the absence of his own dog, Spots – the first dog to be made an example of under this new law – so he decides to hijack one of the planes at the Megasaki airbase and fly over to Trash Island to attempt a rescue mission. Whereas he initially intends to retrieve something he lost, what he underestimates is what he’s able to bring into a world which has refuted, rejected and displaced man’s best friend – he serves as the embodiment of the innocent, untarnished kindness that humanity still has at its core.

Only one of the dogs on Trash Island, Chief (Bryan Cranston), maintains a wary distance from Atari. A black sheep and a social outcast, he’s the tough and resilient leader of the pack; all of the dogs bar himself have been raised in loving, family households, and are used to their creature comforts. Chief has only a few experiences with humans, and they’ve not been entirely positive, so he’s wary of placing his faith in anything without four legs and a tail, until Atari comes along and shows him that he’s worth trusting.

Wes Anderson is a master at portraying the intricacies of social dynamics; through showing who the characters are individually, he’s able to convey how characters relate to each other in a particular environment. Isle of Dogs is no exception to this – it might actually be his finest example to date – just as familial bonds were very much at the core of Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox, they are very much weaved into this story too. Chief falls for Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), a pedigree show dog with a knack for tricks, and the short screen time spent with them is playful, funny and charming. The weight which grounds this film, and its sense of place, comes from the value it places on love.

Although environment and those who inhabit it feel generously rendered, this seems to come at the expense of a narrative which feels stretched a little too thinly. There’s definitely an attempt to reach for a serious and nuanced dialogue surrounding the world’s current climate, but it does at times feel as though the story is attempting to attach more gravitas to it than is perhaps earned by its light-footed and elegant dance through the plot. The tempo lulls and quickens throughout, and this serves character development rather than a serious reflection on the issues presented. That’s s little complaint to make however, with a cast as talented as the one Anderson has collected for this project. Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton are well cast in their respective roles, and Greta Gerwig as the engaging, forthcoming Tracy is a particular delight, a love letter to youthful activism that our society so desperately needs right now.

That’s what, at its heart, Isle of Dogs is all about – activism. It reminds us that hopelessly optimistic, reckless passion for change can be an incredibly powerful tool. That true courage is defined by showing love to those who others would turn away, and through the actions of Atari, Tracy and all the dogs on Trash Island, that the smallest voice can create a seismic change in the world.

By Maisie Mcgregor