The films of Wes Anderson are a taste worth acquiring - and his new stop-motion animation Isle of Dogs might well be the best way to start. Anderson has used stop-motion once before in his 2009 adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox. Well whatever he got right there, he and his team have taken to a whole new level of amazing this time around. Isle of Dogs is a multi-dimensional work of art and an absolute joy from start to finish.
It's the near future and the dictatorial Mayor of Megasaki (fictional Japanese city) has banished all dogs on the pretext of canine flu and other assorted diseases, despite insistence by a top scientist that the creation of a vaccine is imminent. The entire dog population is quarantined on 'Trash Island', a one-time nuclear facility turned into a vast dump, where these ex-pets scavenge for scraps of food. The situation is complicated when the Mayor's ward, a young lad called Akira, travels to the island in search of his beloved dog Spots, the first creature ever to be exiled. There he meets a pack of dogs led by lifelong stray Chief (splendidly voiced by Brian Cranston), who agree to aid him in his quest.
Where to start? Probably with the movie's dazzling visual style. The stop-motion here achieves similar levels of detail to computer animation, but with that added three-dimensional, tactile quality. It brings everything to teeming life - both the cityscapes, laboratories and halls of Megasaki and the island's filthy trash-mountains. The dogs' disgusting habitat is epic in its scope and not without its own surreal beauty. Anderson frames everything with the precision he brings to his live-action movies - including lots of beautifully symmetrical doggie tableaux.
The writer/director draws gorgeously on aspects of Japanese culture too, something reflected in the taiko drum-fuelled soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water). There's been some heated internet debate regarding the wisdom of using Japan and its language as window-dressing to a story that might have played out anywhere, but Anderson is so clearly in love with the country's animation and cinema that the whole thing comes across as a fan tribute. The country's art, music and language (both written and spoken) pervade the film; translation for non-speakers is provided in a variety of ways - ingenious, quirky, and subtitles not among them.
The dogs are all English-speakers - rich voice-work by the likes of Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton and Bill Murray. These aren't cute Gromit-type puppets either. The Trash Island dogs are mangey, flea-bitten and starved, prone to scrapping and reduced to eating maggoty left-overs. They're also entirely loveable, brimming with pathos and very funny indeed - brilliantly realised by the animators before they utter a words of Anderson's hilariously dry dialogue. (As with Gromit, a minute change in expression can transform a moment into absolute gold.) It's a remarkable combination of carefully observed canine behaviour and wry human wit.
And though it will strike a resonant chord with every dog-lover in the audience - you'll seriously want these critters to be rescued - Isle of Dogs is about more than animal cruelty. If I've wondered in the past what the actual point is in Anderson's weird and beautiful-looking tales, here it's all about authoritarianism, marginalisation, even ethnic cleansing. It's pointedly political stuff, and a far cry from the children's film some might be expecting. This is classic storytelling with ideas so big they could only be expressed through animation. Don't be fooled by its charm, humour or innocence - Isle of Dogs is film-making (and I've resisted the impulse to say it) with a pretty sharp bite.
Where Are the Women?: The pack-dogs have a fun blokey dynamic I wouldn't change. Greta Gerwig is a firebrand exchange-student on a hunt for the truth, however, Frances McDormand does top translation and Scarlett Johansson gives dependably sultry voice to a canine hottie called Nutmeg.
Ed's Verdict: 9.5/10. Four years it took to make this film and it shows in every exquisitely crafted frame. My favourite Wes Anderson movie and one of the year's best so far. (I loved Coco, but I love this even more.)