Isle of Dogs (2018) review: Audacious, futuristic rebellion adventure (with stop-motion dogs)

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Director: Wes Anderson Writers: Wes Anderson (screenplay) Stars: Bryan CranstonKoyu RankinEdward Norton 

In Japan, in the not-too-distant future, the dog-hating Mayor of Megasaki island has banished all dogs to nearby Trash Island. As part of the cat-loving Kobayashi dynasty the Mayor tells his citizens he is protecting them from the perils of Canine Flu and Sout Fever, which have infected the entire dog population and are threatening to transfer to humans. We follow the adventures of a pack of dogs. (including Bryan Cranston and Chief, Edward Norton as Rex and Jeff Goldblum as Duke) on Trash Island, who are working to help a 12-year old boy (“dogs love those”), The Little Pilot, find his beloved dog Spots among the piles of rubbish and feral hounds.

In order to capture the communication difficulties between man and hound, Anderson has all of the dogs speak in English, while the human population speak largely in Japanese (save for Frances McDormand’s Interpreter Nelson and Greta Gerwig’s Tracy the Exchange Student). The Japanese is largely offered with no subtitles, but due to context and the deft animation it is never hard to understand what is being said.

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The animation is beautiful, managing to keep the unique Anderson aesthetic while also giving firm nods to everyone from Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyasaki to Nick Park. The animation is apparently at 12 images per second, fewer than many stop-motion films, which adds to the jerky, off-kilter appeal. The intricate details in every scene are mind blowing, from the dogs’ fur seemingly blowing in the wind (from the animators hands simply touching the puppets between shots) to some of the scenery there is always a lot to look at. It’s a true feast for the eyes, sushi preparation and all.

This is a film that will stand up to multiple viewings as it is both visually stunning and densely packed with minor characters who could hold their own as part of their own narrative. Tilda Swinton’s brief turn as The Oracle, the seemingly psychic pug is just wonderful and all too brief. Yoko Ono also makes an appearance as Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono, a woman whose back story I would love to hear.

Anderson is often criticised for the coldness of his films, retaining a constant distance from the audience which means connection with the characters become difficult. Isle of Dogs is no different, with an omniscient narrator and chapter headings clearly delineating where in the narrative we are. The landscapes are bleak, with the monochrome of Trash Island a stark contrast to the beauty of Megasaki city. However the characters, despite the trademark Anderson stilted dialogue, still manage to display a lot of warmth. I’m not ashamed to say this was the first Wes Anderson film that made me cry. Twice. The dogs and their relationships both with each other and the various humans they encounter seem far more developed than many of Anderson live action human characters, perhaps a nod to the high esteem with which he holds our canine friends.

Isle of Dogs is a beautiful and engaging film, with plenty to keep both ardent cinephiles, dog-lovers and more mainstream cinema goers entertained.

9 out of 10

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