First Thoughts on Isle of Dogs (2018)

*All reviews contain spoilers*
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You’ve heard the rumour, right? About Isle of Dogs? Well, maybe I’ll tell you… once I get to know you better.

In his second animated feature following 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, director Wes Anderson takes us on a trip to a dystopian Japan of the not-too-distant future, where a young boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin) is setting out to find his lost dog. The government are doing their best to stamp out the entire canine race and have banished them all to an offshore dump – the “Isle of Dogs” – following a mysterious epidemic, with Atari’s beloved friend Spots (Liev Schreiber) the first to go. However, he’s not about to let his pet go without a fight, so the plucky young lad takes a small plane out to the island himself, where he promptly crashes and meets up with a curious collection of pups led by the stern and stubborn Chief (Bryan Cranston). Despite Chief’s insistence that he is nobody’s pet, he reluctantly accompanies his “pack” as they begin to help Atari track down his missing dog, learning a great deal about himself along the way.

Going into this, I had very few expectations; this was my first Wes Anderson film, so all I knew before seeing this was that he’d done one animated film before, that he had a string of hits under his belt and a highly devoted fanbase. My first thought upon seeing the trailers was how great it is that such a labour-intensive artform as stop-motion animation is continuing to thrive in today’s climate; with traditional animation now relegated mostly to television or foreign studios, it’s truly impressive that stop-motion has managed to maintain a firm foothold amidst the waves of CGI (although I know a lot of modern stop-motion is computer-assisted). It is thanks to companies like Laika and Aardman, as well as the efforts of directors like Wes Anderson and Tim Burton, that we have so many modern stop-motion masterpieces to enjoy – and Isle of Dogs certainly earns its place among their ranks.

The film boasts an impressively star-studded cast. Along with Cranston, Rankin and Schreiber, we also have Edward Norton, Billy Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Courtney B. Vance, Fisher Stevens, Harvey Keitel, Bob Balaban, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Frank Wood and Yoko Ono. (Anjelica Huston, a long-time collaborator of Anderson’s, is also credited as the “Mute poodle”). With the possible exception of Gerwig as Tracy (which I’ll come back to), everybody does a truly fantastic job with their characters here. I particularly enjoyed Cranston, especially in his scenes with Johansson, and Norton, Balaban, Murray and Goldblum were all highlights as his friends. Goldblum apparently recorded his lines over the phone from California, because scheduling conflicts prevented him from recording with the rest of the cast in England. It’s only his second appearance in an animated film after The Prince of Egypt back in 1998!

The acting is far from the only thing to admire about this film, however. Everything, from the writing to the cinematography, from the music to the animation – all of it is of the very highest quality. Isle of Dogs has a unique look which sets it apart from the majority of other mainstream animated films; the only thing remotely similar to it that I’ve seen is Kubo and the Two Strings, which I took a look at late last year. Anderson has stated that the artwork in this film was strongly influenced by the films of Akira Kurosawa, the director of such classics as Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961), as well as by the stop-motion holiday specials of Rankin/Bass Productions.

Isle of Dogs has taken the title of longest stop-motion film of all time, beating out 2009’s Coraline by two minutes, and it never fails to dazzle you as we move back and forth between a crowded, colourful Japan and a garbage-strewn (but strangely beautiful) island full of dogs (which reminded me strongly of Pixar’s WALL-E at times). As we explore these locales with our canine heroes, the animation remains smooth and subtly detailed – I will never fail to be amazed at seeing the final result of the hours and hours of work that goes into just a few frames of stop-motion, it’s simply incredible. Apparently, the hair of the dogs was made from alpaca wool; that explains why it looks so realistic!

The film’s soundtrack is also marvellously done – Alexandre Desplat really outdid himself here. There’s a particular theme that crops up at the beginning and end of the film, among other places, which we see being played by a trio of children; it’s a powerful, percussion-heavy piece which really gets the blood pumping and I cannot get it out of my head.

Isle of Dogs is a fascinating and very timely story, tackling such difficult topics as pollution, animal abuse and political corruption with flawless finesse, although it’s worth noting that this does make it quite complicated at times. This isn’t a criticism, merely an observation: I wouldn’t recommend taking young children to see this, as they will likely struggle to keep up with the extremely fast-paced editing and the waves of dialogue (in both English and Japanese), much of which is peppered with dry vocabulary that will go right over their heads. There are also a couple of instances in which the word “bitch” is used (although in one case, it’s simply referring to a female dog) and some surprisingly graphic imagery (for instance, Atari has a piece of metal lodged in the side of his head, a kidney transplant surgery is conducted on-camera, and several live creatures are chopped up and prepared for sushi). Now, I’m as squeamish as the next person and it didn’t bother me, but if your child is sensitive to such things – or a die-hard vegetarian – then this might not be the film for them.

Aside from these minor notes, I would highly recommend this one to any animation fans. It’s a terrific ride and will have you laughing and crying before it’s through, as it’s filled with sympathetically handled characters who you quickly come to care about. Chief’s gradual transformation from battle-hardened street-dog to loyal friend is a heart-warming one, but I was equally invested in the fates of his fellow dogs and little Atari, too. If I had one criticism to make of the cast, it would be over the character of Tracy; she’s not awful, but she feels sort of jammed in and doesn’t gel well with the rest of the film. She tends to spend most of her scenes talking very rapidly and can be a difficult character to like as she’s headstrong and argumentative, but even she had grown on me somewhat by the film’s climax.

Isle of Dogs was a US-German coproduction, made by Indian Paintbrush and Anderson’s own production company, American Empirical Pictures, and distributed by Fox Searchlight. It had its premiere at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival, where it won Anderson the Silver Bear for Best Director. It went on limited release in the USA late last month, but the wide release won’t be until the 13th of this month – keep an eye out for it! Although there has been some inevitable criticism of the details of the film’s portrayal of Japanese culture, critical reception has been largely positive so far and audiences are loving it. When this gem arrives in theatres near you, don’t hesitate – get yourself a plane and head out to trash island with Atari, where you’ll meet some great new friends and share in their moving story of courage and loyalty. But perhaps first… you’d like to take a vote?

 

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53476946 – credit for poster

 

3 Replies to “First Thoughts on Isle of Dogs (2018)”

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