Isle of Dogs – Review

Worth seeing: as a bold and fresh take on the animated feature that will appeal to fans of Wes Anderson's quasi-surrealist vision
Director:Wes Anderson
Featuring:Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Bryan Cranston, Ed Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Koyu Rankin, Akira Ito, Akira Takayama, Anjelica Huston, Courtney B Vance, F Murray Abraham, Fisher Stevens, Frances McDormand, Frank Wood, Greta Gerwig, Harvey Keitel, Jake Ryan, Ken Watanabe, Kunichi Nomura, Liev Schreiber, Mari Natsuki, Nijirô Murakami, Roman Coppola, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Yoko Ono
Length:101 minutes
Certificate:PG
Country:US
Released:30th March 2018

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In a near future Japan, cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) banishes all dogs from Megasaki City to an offshore landfill site known as Trash Island, when two canine diseases start to spread.

When his adopted son Atari (Koyu Rankin) steals a plane and flies off to the Isle of Dogs to search for his own pet Spots (Liev Schreiber), he crash lands and is rescued by a group of five dogs ; Rex (Edward Norton), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban) and longtime stray Chief (Bryan Cranston).

They don’t know Spots but they agree to help Atari find him.

Back in Megasaki City, an American exchange student, Tracy (Greta Gerwig), believes that there’s a government conspiracy to keep the dogs on Trash Island and sets out to expose Kobayashi’s crimes.

Can Atari and the dogs on Trash Island and Tracy back on the mainland cut the Mayor down to size, secure justice for the canines and restore normality to Megasaki City?

WHAT’S IT LIKE?

Time after time, Wes Anderson has shown himself to be a director who doesn’t really care what anyone else is doing; one of the most idiosyncratic film-makers working in the industry, his productions are generally offbeat comedies that settle just on the right side of surreal.

From his earlier work, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, to his more recent Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, his films have garnered critical praise, often converting into awards recognition.

His latest film – his first return to the world of animation since 2009’s Oscar-nominated Fantastic Mr Fox, has already earned Anderson the Best Director prize at the Berlin Film Festival – a sign of his status within the industry.

But while critics and his peers admire his sharp wit, eye for detail, brisk and crisp direction, many audiences find themselves a little left out in the cold by his arch, often aloof approach to story-telling, and it’s unlikely that Isle of Dogs will bridge that gap.

Setting Isle of Dogs in Japan has prompted his detractors to accuse him of cultural appropriation – particularly since it’s an American exchange student who saves the dogs from the canine-phobic locals. But his supporters have noted that setting a film in another culture can give a director a little more creative freedom, particularly with any satire feeling less on-the-nose, and here, it allows him to nod towards issues such as racism, immigration and civil rights – through the metaphor of pets in a foreign land.

With only a handful of notable additions to – and omissions from – the Fantastic Mr Fox voice cast, Anderson manages to conjure up the intimacy of a repertory theatre company, with the actors – or at least their voices – bouncing off each other with the familiarity and comfort of members of a family.

The often staccato and always brisk line delivery neatly compliments the stop-motion animation, which allows Anderson to delight in some of the most unnecessary but always welcome detail. He adopts a variety of tactics that allow him to preserve the integrity of its setting, by having all of the Japanese humans speaking in their native tongue, translated for the audience often through an interpreter (with much of the plot unfolding through news conferences) and sometimes just through context but never through subtitles. The dogs’ barks are “rendered” as English, a caption explains at the start, which conveniently helps the audience to follow the narrative from the point of the dogs – who in reality wouldn’t always understand every detail of their masters’ instructions anyway. It does make you wonder how the film will go down in Japan, though.

The plot – while it has some potentially fascinating undertones – is, in truth, rather pedestrian, simplistic and not altogether convincing, although framing it as an animation makes this far more forgiving. And the sheer artistry of everything from the model-making and stop-frame motion to the delightful voice-work and such directorial flourishes as characters generally looking directly into the camera, make Isle of Dogs a refreshing, bold and highly entertaining family comedy, that might or might not have something to say and that certainly does offer something different to each generation.

It’s unmistakably the work of Wes Anderson, so his fans will be delighted by another visit to his wildly imaginative and sharply funny mind but those who don’t get him – or, more precisely, just don’t like him – won’t find anything hear to persuade them that their previous prejudice is misguided.