29th Mar2018

‘Isle of Dogs’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura, Greta Gerwig, Liev Schreiber, Jeff Goldblum | Written by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura | Directed by Wes Anderson


Isle of Dogs? I love dogs, too. There’s something about their wide-eyed inquisitive faces that makes them an ideal fit for Wes Anderson, the modern master of deadpan whimsy. Using stop-motion puppetry techniques (as simultaneously ultra-modern and old-fashioned as the name of his hero, Atari) Anderson crafts an animated odyssey which is wholly original in art design and conception, if not its broader structure.

Anderson and co-writers Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura throw in a ton of world-building exposition, but the film is visually compelling and strange enough that it never feels like a drag.

Though the chronology hops about like an excited puppy, the basic story – set twenty years in the future – is that dogs have been outlawed in the Japanese archipelago, as ordered by Mayor Kobayashi (Nomura) of Megasaki City. He blames an incurable “dog flu”. The canines are rounded up, shipped off to Trash Island, and left to die. Except one such mutt belongs to Kobayashi’s adopted son and heir, Atari (Koyu Rankin). So, the 12-year-old kid steals a plane and goes in search of Spots (Liev Schreiber).

On Trash Island, Atari meets a pack of supposedly ferocious dogs, led by the fearsome Chief (Bryan Cranston). They choose not to eat him, and reluctantly agree to help him find his lost companion. Meanwhile, in Megasaki, foreign exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig) is trying to uncover Kobayashi’s plot. She’s seeking to prove that Kobayashi intends to annihilate all dogs, despite the existence of a fully-functioning dog flu cure.

There is thinly-veiled parallel with a certain Mr Trump going on here. Kobayashi deliberately suppresses the flu cure to perpetuate a hatred of otherness. It’s surely easier, after all, to control subjects when they’re given an object – a scapegoat – for their hatred, and distract them from any real social issues. When Tracy – whose “cure” literally invites integration – unveils Kobayashi’s plot, he even dismisses it as fake news.

Tracy looks dangerously like the White Saviour trope, and it’s riskier still when combined with Anderson’s deployment of virtually every Japanese signifier in the book: kabuki theatre, taiko drumming, some hack ‘n’ slash sushi prep, a sake bottle igloo, and exploding wasabi spitballs. And of course, this being Japan, Kobayashi’s scheme involves creepy robot dogs. But this almighty culture-splash never feels crass or tasteless. Isle of Dogs seems like the view of a fond outsider; of a dopey and loving pup looking up at its master.

Suiting the film’s swift pace (it’s possibly the least digressive film of Anderson’s career), the characters are idiosyncratic rather than fully-formed. Each has their own tic (alongside plenty of ticks). I particularly enjoyed Jeff Goldblum’s Duke, an eager gossip who imparts vital information as if the pack were chatting over a wine bar lunch. And Tilda Swinton gets a tiny part as miniature bulldog Oracle, whose awe-inspiring “visions” are based on nothing more than watching TV news reports.

Obviously, the main characters are more developed. He never speaks a word of English, but Atari’s plight is simple enough and well-rendered enough to resonate. And his relationship with the bullish Chief is sweet, even if Chief’s change of heart towards him is somewhat sudden. This could be the result of Anderson’s character overload – but it’s a fair sacrifice for an ensemble of this quality.

The grungy stop-motion art recalls Anderson’s own Fantastic Mr Fox, of course, which itself echoed darker fare like Dave Borthwick’s Tom Thumb, the Brothers Quay’s Street of Crocodiles, and the work of Jan Svankmajer. The creepiness and grubbiness remains; but here, the tone and messaging is far warmer and less icky.

Trash Island is an environmentally varied place, with some grimly beautiful apocalyptic landscapes. Ingeniously, whenever we see TV footage, it is rendered in 2D in the classical woodblock style. Anderson even adds a little canine flavour to Hokusai’s famous Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Alexandre Desplat’s music is a propulsive blend of persistent percussion, meaning that aurally and visually this may  be the most unusual of all Anderson’s films. Yet narratively and thematically, it’s his safest; his most straightforward and mainstream. Far less chilly than The Grand Budapest Hotel, it’s more in line with the innocent optimism of Moonrise Kingdom. In short, it’s as happy and positive as a gormless, panting dog. It’s your new best friend.

Isle of Dogs is in UK cinemas from 30th March 2018.


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