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Isle Of Dogs: Trash The Future
Tom Duggins , April 6th, 2018 12:27

Wes Anderon's new stop motion animation disturbs the usual binaries of cinematic representations of nature with a bold new aesthetics of junk

Here’s something we know about Wes Anderson: he doesn’t tend to half-arse things. Watching the intricate, jewel box worlds which he conjures before the camera, you wonder – does he conclude the wrap party on every film by holding a ceremonial bonfire of all those self-help books that advise against the excessive demands of perfectionism? Does he stand bolt upright and drum his fingers contentedly on the lapel of his suede blazer, arms folded, as each paperback of well-meaning pabulum is tossed into the living flames?

There are people who find the level of detail common to all of Anderson’s films a bit annoying. It can result in an atmosphere of heightened attention that feels claustrophobic, like stepping inside a museum policed by gallery guards with trigger happy shush-fingers. Certainly, there are times where the obsessive degree of measurement is a little distracting, and his latest film Isle of Dogs is no different. A return to the stop-motion animation seen in Fantastic Mr. Fox(2009), Anderson is able to indulge his fondness for specificities and control in the ornately constructed miniature sets of a make-believe city. The tone is as dark and gloomy as his previous offering The Grand Budapest Hotel(2014), but whilst that film drew its atmosphere of malignity from the oncoming threat of war, Isle of Dogs has a sense of foreboding which is quite explicitly ecological.

The story concerns Atari Kobayashi, a twelve-year-old orphan whose uncle is Mayor of Megasaki City. When an outbreak of dog flu means that Megasaki’s canine population are becoming an increasing threat to its human citizens, Mayor Kobayashi banishes all dogs to the nearby Trash Island – a desolate offshore refuse dump – including his nephew’s beloved security dog, Spots. The intrepid Atari manages to hijack a plane and fly it on a rescue mission to Trash Island, crash landing in the company of five companionable dogs voiced by regular Anderson contributors: Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban and newcomer to the fold Bryan Cranston. Atari’s efforts are aided, back in the city itself, by the campaigning work of a student newspaper who suspect foul play on the part of the Mayor.

If you’re familiar with pretty much any of the director’s previous work, you’ll know what to expect. Precocious preteens with an ear for witty retorts and a world weary cast to their mannerisms? Yes. (Greta Gerwig adds to an already bumper 2018 by voicing Tracy Walker, American exchange student and investigative reporter with a terrier-like tenacity). Occasionally twee soundtrack including 60s folk and a high voiced male singer? Uh huh. General air of charm and whimsy, including a shamelessly sentimental storyline about family and sacrifice? You betcha.

It’s funny, it’s a little sad, it’s heartwarming, but the most noteworthy thing about Isle of Dogs is its preoccupation with waste.

Anderson’s 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom was an outdoors movie, a film about childhood romance, but crucially one taking place in the wild. Outside of civilized society, beyond the bounds of parental expectation, from The Famous Five to Hunt for the Wilderpeople - the undisturbed natural world is always a fitting place to let young characters roam. Not yet installed into adult life, they can rehearse anxieties and uncertainties, experiment with a maturity which will soon be expected of them.

What’s remarkable about Isle of Dogs is that it fits closely to the sort of archetype we might expect even from Victorian children’s fiction – intrepid kids more fearless than their elders, bringing a fresh sense of right and wrong to bear on the iniquities of adulthood – but it doesn’t take place in a forest, field, or jungle. It takes place on a slag heap of rust, mud, and slime, a refuse island covered in grey ash and washed up trash from the mainland. Atari builds a shelter of empty beer bottles and plays fetch with his canine pals using a hunk of rubber radiator tubing. The film is presenting a familiar trope, a story of a young man on a metaphoric walkabout pitted against the elements, but what he’s pitted against isn’t the natural world so much as it’s the runoff of our own man-made, synthetic one.

Too often in films which depict nature, we’re still treated to two categories which (although accurate) don’t exactly tell the full story: the natural world as red and tooth in claw, a frontier of savagery to do battle against, as in, say, The Revenant (2015), or the natural world as a place of sensuality and spirituality, where we can live in concert with the land. In the UK, recent films such as God’s Own Country or Dark River offer a glimpse of agricultural life, where nature is a challenge but ultimately malleable, rewarding the toil of man’s labour. Showing nature as a place of self-sufficiency and tradition is understandable, but in the present moment it’s starting to look a little insufficient. We also need to see nature as somewhere which is rapidly being altered, which is haunting us with a mirror image of our own late capitalist reality.

Where Isle of Dogs triumphs is in its willingness to showcase the denaturing of nature, offering a glimpse – not of a dystopia, strictly – but something very close to our own reality. Watching Atari frolic on Trash Island, you half expect he’ll come across another of the whales that Greenpeace photographed in the Philippines, washed up ashore with plastic detritus pouring from the arches of its huge jaws. A seagull carcass framing the chips of silicon and non-degradable packaging unwittingly gulped into its bill. This sounds depressing, undoubtedly it is depressing, but the film itself is not.

Isle of Dogs has a positive story arch, one of redemption and rescue. It shows that the desire to live alongside other animals is widespread, just like the desire to maintain our connection with the natural world. Because of that desire, more and more cities are making an effort to become ‘greener’ – sectioning-off areas for plants, to incorporate and bed them within the urban landscape. We trip over boxed ferns on the high street, encounter a ‘green wall’ on the side of a building (even if those plants are grown in hydroponic greenhouse conditions and replaced every other month). But the greening of our cities has a corollary: the trashing of nature. The junk which belongs in our densely populated cities is slowly seeping out. Trash Island is a part of our world, it’s part of the two-way relationship between our post-industrial society and the environment itself. Like it or lump it, trash is our reality – and when it comes to garbage, lumps are never in short supply.

Isle of Dogs is in cinemas now

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