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An Inspired Adventure on the “Isle of Dogs”

"Wes enjoys animation for what it is. He's not trying to hide the fact that these are made objects. He's celebrating the art form."

Detailing director Wes Anderson’s stop-motion film Isle of Dogs, Jenny Brewer explains that it’s “set in Japan, 20 years in the future, in the fictional city of Megasaki, where the corrupt mayor Kobayashi—a cat lover with a vendetta for all dogs—exiles all the furry fiends to Trash Island, the city’s rubbish dump. There, the starving dogs form clans and fight for food, as well as gossip about the latest island rumors, while Kobayashi makes malevolent plans for their future. Meanwhile the mayor’s nephew goes on a mission to save his beloved dog Spots, and crash lands on Trash Island, where the adventure ensues.

A scene from Isle of Dogs. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures, © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

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“Visually, Isle of Dogs is a beautiful and authentic homage to Japanese culture and history,” Brewer continues. “Suddenly Wes Anderson’s obsession with symmetry and immaculate attention to detail takes on new meaning in this context. From the set designs of the city to the hand drawn maps, woodblock print-inspired animations on the TVs, and the comedically adapted version of Hokusai’s The Wave, the production screams of being made by an obvious Japanophile, without any pastiche.”

A scene from Isle of Dogs. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures, © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

“It’s also structured like a Japanese play, split into acts, with dramatic narration and traditional music,” Brewer concludes. “As it’s told with the grandeur of an old Japanese fairytale, this sets up a brilliant complement to the scruffy dogs (voiced by the likes of Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum and, of course, Bill Murray) and their deadpan quips, and it’s this contrast that heightens the impact of the comic timing, which at times is sharp as a sushi knife. Even a glance to camera from a cynical or confused dog is enough to make the audience burst into laughter.” To read the full article, click here.

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“The production design is consistently inspired and often quite beautiful: rippling glittery seas, a line of elongated doggie shadows marching along a wall of garbage, a multicolored hideout made of discarded sake bottles,” says Jonathan Romney. There is so much detail in the breakneck race from image to image that Isle of Dogs will reward multiple viewings as much as any Anderson film, visually if not narratively.” To read the full article, click here.

Isle of Dogs graphic designer Erica Dorn, who grew up in Japan, explains, “The world of Isle of Dogs is kind of an alternative reality. It looks and feels like Japan, but it’s a slightly dreamier version, a slightly more Wes Anderson version. That is the beauty of setting the film in a made-up city, in a made-up time: you get a certain amount of artistic license.

“The blending of old and new is very common in Japan. There are scenes in the film that are very minimalist and wabi-sabi; but then you switch over to the city, which is maximalist and very intense. So, there’s that feeling of Japan but it’s all filtered through Wes’s own way of seeing.”

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Isle of Dogs poster

Producer Jeremy Dawson recounts that it was the film’s extreme design challenges—even for Anderson who has a way with dizzyingly complex spaces—that led the director to think in terms of another stop-motion film. It just seemed the matching form for emotionally fluent, if down-and-out, dogs and a Japanese island lined with society’s strange, funny and downright calamitous discards.

“If it were possible for Wes to do this live action, maybe he would have,” Dawson says, “but it’s not something that could have been done. It’s a movie about talking dogs. Yet it’s not a cartoon—it’s a movie. I think it pushes the boundary in terms of what people think can be done in this medium.”

Read more: Cinematographer Tristan Oliver illuminates the whimsical futurescape of director Wes Anderson’s stop-motion feature Isle of Dogs

Production on Isle of Dogs involved more than 670 crew members, including more than 70 manning the puppet department and another 38 in the animation department. The heart, humor and inventiveness of Isle of Dogs had to be stitched out of 130,000 stills that create the illusion of immersive action.

A scene from Isle of Dogs. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures, © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation 

Says animation producer Simon Quinn: “Wes enjoys animation for what it is. He’s not trying to hide the fact that these are made objects. He’s celebrating the art form. He’s not trying to compete with CG. He’s actually saying, ‘Okay, this is a model set. So how can we play with that? What sort of visual gags can we use in that?’ You end up doing things like using cotton wadding for smoke or carving soap to make candle flames. All of these things are joyous. They’re the things that make the work exciting.”

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