“Isle of Dogs” (2018)
Running Time: 99 minutes
Written & directed by: Wes Anderson
Featuring: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Courtney B. Vance, Fisher Stevens, Harvey Keitel, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Frank Wood, Kunichi Nomura and Yoko Ono
Chief: “Don’t ask me to fetch that stick.”
Any time a new Wes Anderson film is released it really is a period of joy for lovers of cinema, he is a singular voice that operates seemingly independently always creating something new and original only ever working with top talents who hope to be a part of something truly unique, special as well as eye catching, saying something about not only the human condition but where we are as a species, so it is just like him to use ‘man’s best friend’ as not only a visual queue but also metaphor as well as allegory. “Isle of Dogs” (2018) comes four years after what might be Anderson’s masterpiece “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014) which was not only a box office and critical success but was nominated for nine Oscars, eventually winning four, so it makes sense that he would pivot, turning to something that would not only be a little shocking but challenge audiences into actually wondering what they are seeing in his latest movie. This is Anderson’s second animated/stop motion film after the wonderful Road Dahl adaption “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009) but that film is as different from this current one as chalk and cheese which actually works in its favour as well as separating it from any of Anderson’s earlier work, this is a challenge unlike any other the director has ever created. In terms of the look as well as the story this movie really is unlike many movies before it with not only an original story but with the animals of the story not looking sympathetic or ‘friendly’, in fact there is a reality present not seen in many live action movies which is a juxtaposition to other Anderson movies as well as any other 2018 release.
As with all of Wes Anderson films the key ingredient is Anderson himself who is the driving force behind each of his wonderfully independent as well as lush looking movies. His entire oeuvre is filled with films that are about kinship of one form or another dating back to his debut in “Bottle Rocket” (1996) although many of them, because they were co-written by other collaborators, were possibly watered down versions with not a complete vision, it may also explain why it has taken a long time for him to complete his films. With his last two efforts we are seeing what a great writer looks like especially when his visuals are so right for his stories. In terms of “Isle of Dogs” what Anderson has created is almost an anti Dsiney movie with the dogs not only drawn in a very particular way but also there is little to feel actual sympathy for as I believe is the the directors intent.
“Isle of Dogs” is set in a dystopian near-future Japan, an influenza virus spreads throughout the canine population, with a risk of crossing to humans. The new, authoritarian mayor of Megasaki City, Kobayashi, signs a decree banishing all dogs to Trash Island, despite a scientist named Professor Watanabe insisting he is close to finding a cure for the dog flu. The first to be exiled is Spots, who belonged to Atari Kobayashi, the orphaned nephew and ward of the mayor.
Six months later, Atari steals a plane and flies to Trash Island to search for Spots. After crash-landing, Atari is rescued by a pack of dogs led by a black dog named Chief. The pack decides to help Atari locate Spots, although Chief, a former stray, is reluctant to fraternize with humans. Together, they fend off a rescue team Kobayashi sends to retrieve Atari. At the insistence of a female purebreed named Nutmeg, Chief reluctantly decides to accompany the group on their search.
As has been the case with all of Anderson’s movies the cast list is one to be admired and assists in making this as entertaining as any animated movie out there. There are definitely recognisable signature voices which I always find fun listening to as it can be a mark of a great actor when all they have is their voices to project feeling as well as emotion. Make no mistake there is plenty of emotion as well as action to be had in this movie that is a cross between an animated movie, a movie lesson as well as a kind of homage to Japan as well as Japan seen on the big screen, and through the eyes of Anderson himself.
There are many unique ideas, themes and motifs used in “Isle of Dogs” the one that looms largest as well as being most obvious is that the entire movie is set in a semi-futuristic Japan but using what could be viewed as a Western gaze filtered through Japanese cinema which is quite an odd thing when an audience if they notice think about it. I believe that Anderson has not co-opted another culture for entertainment but has taken his own experiences and love of Japanese cinema and used this to tell his story, whether he has been able to do it successfully is another thing, in some ways he has either been too subtle or in some cases not subtle enough. This along with the fact that people in this movie speak Japanese without English subtitles to immerse the audience, but the ideas that are being put forth are mostly understandable which is a credit to Anderson. It is a conundrum that is on the screen in this movie, as I have to admit to not knowing what to think, I have been a fan of a certain type of Japanese film so most of the imagery as well as music I could understand but I could not help but feel it had been borrowed but maybe not in a good way, it was not exploitive, it was something else again. I believe that Anderson does love Japanese culture as well as cinema but maybe he is not expert enough to know how to use it in a way that feels not like a gimmick. When viewing the movie I choose to believe that it is a homage to Japan that is being put forward and nothing else, however I can see the other point of view where it could be seen as being a little more insidious than that, of course the decision is left up to the audience so you should make up your own mind, it did not dissuade me from enjoying the movie as well as seeing all the hard work that went into it.
This is definitely a film that is worth having in any collection as it is begging to be watched as well as viewed multiple times, my only hesitation is the extras on the DVD/Blu-ray are a little scarce which is always a shame as well as a missed opportunity for the film-maker as well as the audience. However in saying that this an expertly crafted movie that is as entertaining as anything out in cinemas currently, do yourself a favor and seek this out.
Promotional Featurettes :
Animators, Isle of Dogs Cast, Puppets, An Ode to Dogs, Megasaki City and Trash Island, Weather and Elements, Still Gallery, Theatrical Trailer
“Isle of Dogs” is out now on DVD & Blu-ray.