Channel24 correspondent Rozanne Els attended a screening of Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs where the director spoke about the inspiration behind his new animation.
New York - After the death of a little boy’s parents, a mid-size, short-haired dog with light fur and dark spots, is charged with his safety. 12-Year-old Atari’s uncle, the draconian mayor Kobayashi of Megasaki City, forbids a friendship between Akari and Spots, but...alas! What was Kobayashi thinking? Of course, his cruel demand is moot. There is, remember, nothing that can come between a boy and his best friend.
But when Spots – as well as the rest of Japan’s dogs – is exiled to Trash City (the name is indeed an exact approximation of what you will find there) after an outbreak of Canine Flu, Akari undertakes a brave rescue mission to save his 13/10-level good dog. Akari pairs up with a ragtag team of exiled canines that survive on a diet of memories of crunchy biscuits and the pleasures of domestication as they fight over fish bones. Leading this pack is a life-long stray, Chief (Bryan Cranston), accustomed to hard living and biting off ears of labradoodles in the name of food security.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:
And so begins Wes Anderson’s ninth tender film adventure, Isle of Dogs. Having never heard Wes Anderson speak in person until at a sneak peek preview of the film, the melody of his tone as he spoke about his second animated feature (the first, The Fantastic Mr. Fox) is oddly reassuring. “I know what I’m doing, don’t worry, we will all be okay” his voice sings as he talks about this “completely invented” world.
Let’s pause here a moment. While the film has been praised by many critics, others have pointed to racial and cultural stereotypes in the story. Not as “completely invented” as he claims – more of a perpetuation of a part of historical tendencies.
At the film’s start a note states that the dogs’ barks have been translated into English, while the Japanese characters speak their native language and are only sporadically translated. Most of the voice actors are white and speak in English. Dogs are depicted as the “other” who suffer oppression at the hand of evil – in this case, a Japanese demogogue. Suffice to say that the criticism does have merit and can be perceived as tone-deaf decisions in light of similar accusations against Emma Stone’s role in Aloha and Scarlett Johannson in Ghost in a Shell, were it not that it also serves as a homage to one of his biggest inspirations: Japanese cinema.
“Our first inspiration was Japanese cinema,” Anderson says. His frequent collaborator and friend, executive producer Jason Schwartz, immersed themselves in the work of famed filmmakers Hayao Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa.
“Their work is very different, but it inspired us and made us want to tell this story,” he says. Another inspiration was more literal. “When we made Fantastic Mr. Fox a few years ago, we shot in East London and on the way, came upon a sign for a turnoff to Isle of Dogs. It seemed mysterious to me. I looked it up, and it is supposed to be a place where the king kept his hunting dogs in the 16th century, and that was the beginning of the idea for this movie. I just had a feeling that there was something in that.”
He then went to Schwartz and proposed an idea: There are five dogs and their names are Chief, King, Boss, Rex and Duke and they live on a garbage dump island. And from that little seed came the fruition of their dream to make a movie together in Japan.
Voicing the domesticated troupe are some other frequent collaborators of Anderson’s: Rex (Edward Norton); baseball team mascot Boss (Bill Murray), Puppy Chop Puppy Chow spokesdog King (Bob Balaban) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), who survives on a diet of memories and gossip. A lot of gossip.
“Some parts are people who I've known for years or been a fan for years. Some were people I didn’t know at all. I just liked their voice and the feeling of them. You have to really cast an actor who you can see solely through their voice.”
All in all the voice acting, as spot-on as it is, was a speedy process and recorded some two and half years ago. “Wes is really respectful, but has very strong sense of what he needs and what he wants,” says Courtney B. Vance, who voices the narrator. “We love him and he is very gentle and respectful of our time, but we know he's gonna get what he wants and so whatever we need to do...we do.”
'A SENSE OF INNOCENCE AND CHARM'
Few actors took more than a couple of hours to lay their parts down and small patches of retakes were often done over voice notes or telephone calls. “You can use anything when you record for an animation,” says Anderson. “It’s a very free way to work. Sometimes I could hear a vacuum cleaner in the background, and I would say, ‘Just one more time. Open the door to see what’s happening, come back, hold the phone a little further from your face.’ Stuff like that. I like it. It sounds crazy.”
It does give the film a certain sense of innocence and charm. “I always want to say we try to make a student film. I say to the actors: ‘Don’t tell anybody this is even a real movie!” To have people record on their iPhones gives it a bit of student film feeling.”
Anderson didn’t write the movie with a specific audience in mind. While Japanese animated movies have a sense of melancholy and is taken seriously as a way to tell adult stories, American animation predominantly fall in one of two categories – the likes of Frozen or South Park.
“Every now and then we asked ourselves, ‘Is this gonna be okay?’” The film will, however, resonate with today’s American high schoolers and young adults. Though the movie was written a few years ago, the comparisons between the #NeverAgain student movement that emerged after the recent Parkland school shooting that claimed 17 young lives, and the film’s group of nerdy school kids who ultimately expose Kobayashi for the corrupt leader he is, seems prescient. To this Anderson says: “The world changed a lot during the time that we were making the movie. In disturbing ways.”
One of the movie’s greatest accomplishments is it’s score, which Anderson notes is one of his favorite parts of making a film. Again, he chose a frequent collaborator, Alexandre Desplat, to work with. “It's just Alexandre and me in a room together for the whole process. I'm suggesting things and he's responding in a way an actor does. He's saying, ‘What about this? What about this?’” The result is a score that pounds like a racing heart. It is nothing short of mind-blowing.
Early in Isle of Dogs a brief exchange between Chief and a darling show dog with soft hair in hues of caramel and gold, speaks power to the film’s running theme of unstoppable idealism. In Johansson’s husky timbre, Nutmeg tells Chief why he should help the little boy when his rescue mission goes awry. “Will you help him, the little pilot?” Nutmeg asks. “Why should I?” Chief responds. “Because he’s a 12-year old boy. Dogs love those.”
You know what? We don’t deserve dogs.
Isle of Dogs opens in cinemas nationwide Friday, 22 June.