Review: Isle of Dogs

Image credit: Vinyl Factory

Wes Anderson is one of those directors who has somehow managed to transcend the independent scene with very few bruises to show for it. His films all share the same sort of quirky idiosyncrasies, yet a huge chunk of the movie-watching public seem more than able to get on board with him. If not, they are at least aware of him, which is a lot more than can be said of other filmmakers, say a Jim Jarmusch or a Noah Baumbach. Anderson represents a good stepping stone for people who want to get into more auteur filmmakers, and for that, he deserves a lot of credit, even when taking into consideration the accusations that are often tossed his way: that his films are exclusively deadpan, emotionally disconnected, ironic, twee.

To go into Isle of Dogs with any kind of anti-Anderson prejudice would be missing the point. It’s delightful. Frames pop with the kind of meticulousness that ran through the veins of Anderson’s last film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, but with the jittery charm of stop motion; animation here is confided to every other frame, which really helps emphasise the scratchy, erratic nature of the world Anderson takes us into.

The plot works as both a refugee allegory and an ode to canines and Japanese culture. After an outbreak of dog flu rips through the near future Megasaki City, Mayor Kobayashi (modelled oddly enough on actor Toshiro Mifune from Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) places an order for all dogs to be deported to an exiled colony – Trash Island – selecting Spots – the personal guard-dog of the Mayor’s ward, Atari – as the first to be sent over, alone and separated from his best friend. Atari thus mounts a desperate rescue mission, borrowing a plane and enlisting the help of ‘a pack of scary, indestructible alpha dogs’, headed by Bryan Cranston’s Chief, to find his missing friend. As with any Wes Anderson project, Isle of Dogs has a huge ensemble cast of eccentric characters and personalities, well-fed with lines of witty dialogue and Anderson’s signature deadpan comedic style.

It is perhaps the landscapes, interiors and exteriors that have the greatest personality, though. The world of Isle of Dogs is a hipster’s toy box, all purposefully and deliberately arranged, a delicate diorama of Japanese pastiche. Don’t go into the film expecting cutesiness though. The dogs may fight in Tazmanian Devil-esque dust clouds, but the cuts they receive really bleed. It’s all part of the physicality the film has, why its visual comedy is so successful. Hair looks dry, knotted. Trash piles appear scorched in the noonday heat, ringing of echoes of Hiroshima; disused fairgrounds seem eaten away by rust, dwarfed by rolling clouds fluffy as cotton-balls.

I saw Isle of Dogs in a quaint little theatre in the middle of Leeds – the Hyde Park Picture House – and following the screening Lead Storyboard Artist Jay Clarke headed up a brief Q&A session. I mention it here because what he said helped illuminate the film a little more. If there’s a problem with Isle of Dogs, it is that it feels a little bloated, especially in the first act. The film begins with a short prologue sequence, a scene with a lot of great visual imagery inspired by the likes of Hokusai and other traditional Japanese artists, but as a whole it carries very little narrative weight. Clarke mentioned that the scripting process was not completed before storyboarding started, likewise in regards to the storyboarding process and the actual animation. This may go some way in explaining the overwrought nature of some scenes, that the film overall is perhaps eight minutes too long. A little more tightness perhaps could have been added by a sharper edit.

This is a small gripe in what is otherwise a lovely film. Each and every frame barks a genuine love for the simplest pleasures of life and moviemaking. It may work its magic more for adults than for kids, but Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is a gem of an animated movie, highly personal and sweet, a more than satisfying successor to 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox.

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