UK Release Date: 30th March 2018
Runtime: 101 minutes
Director: Wes Anderson
Writer: Wes Anderson
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Koyu Rankin, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Scarlett Johansson, Greta Gerwig, Liev Schreiber, Kunichi Nomura, Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton
Synopsis: A pack of dogs, exiled to a landfill island to prevent their flu spreading, team up with a young Japanese boy to help him find his lost pet.
Wes Anderson is the most stylistically unique director working in cinema today. There’s no other filmmaker who is identifiable from any single frame of their work. He deals in symmetry, pastel colours, unremitting dollops of quirk and appearances from Bill Murray. His latest film, Isle of Dogs, marks Anderson’s return to stop-motion animation, nine years after his Roald Dahl adaptation Fantastic Mr Fox. It’s as Andersonian as it’s possible to be but, with that, comes a smug-charm balance that stays on the right side of that equation.
The premise is batty in the best possible way. It’s set in the near-future Japanese city of Megasaki, where cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) signs a decree to banish all of the city’s dogs to nearby Trash Island in order to prevent “snout fever” from crossing the species barrier. Violent stray dog Chief (Bryan Cranston) leads a group of canines, including gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum), kindly Rex (Edward Norton) and former sports mascot Boss (Murray). They reluctantly help human child Atari (Koyu Rankin), who crash lands on the island while searching for his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber).
What follows is a fairly standard adventure quest, but one elevated into something spectacular by Anderson’s trademark visual flourishes and an impressive smattering of deadpan comedy. The symmetrical framing and beautiful animation is a true delight and the Japanese setting – which has been criticised, not entirely unfairly, for cultural appropriation – provides an extra visual richness. Anderson clearly adores Japanese cinema, with Kurosawa an obvious touchstone, and that love comes through in his joyous approach to the movie. He keeps his action at dog height, creating a skewed perspective in just about every shot.
Isle of Dogs stars just about every member of Anderson’s informal rep company, with Jeff Goldblum stealing the show as a dog with an eye for gossip. He’s even more believable as a louche, relaxed canine than he is as a louche, relaxed human. Cranston brings a surprising depth to his role, with the most complete arc in the movie, and supporting work from Scarlett Johansson as a glamorous pageant poodle and Harvey Keitel as the leader of a dog gang sticks in the mind in amongst the scrum of competing voices.
Every joke Anderson attempts seems to land, with the unusual deadpan delivery meshing nicely with animation that is both modern in its sophistication and lovably old-fashioned – fights are rendered via clouds of dust and flailing limbs. The entire tone of Isle of Dogs is designed to lull the audience into its strange world, from Anderson’s flourishes to Alexandre Desplat’s highly unusual, drum-heavy score. This dreamlike tone has the unfortunate effect of bloating the already rather rambling story, leaving the film feeling rather overlong by the time it hits its unsatisfying finale, which features the movie’s biggest misstep as Greta Gerwig‘s foreign exchange student turns white saviour.
Notwithstanding its climactic missteps, Isle of Dogs is an inventive and unusual film that is unlike anything else that will hit cinemas this year. For Wes Anderson devotees and new viewers alike, it’s a movie that takes creative risks and shows a virtuosic grasp of visual storytelling, even if worthwhile questions should be raised about the way it marginalises the culture it is depicting. The cultural side of things leaves something of a bad taste but, for the most part, this is a film with considerable charm that stays on the right side of Anderson’s worst, indulgent excesses.
Pop or Poop?
Anderson fans will be delighted by Isle of Dogs and anyone with an affection for canines will be wowed by this unique animated tale. The story has a tendency to ramble, and the Japanese setting is ever so slightly problematic, but there’s such a joy, sense of homage and innovation in what Anderson is doing that it’s impossible to doubt that this all comes from a place of love.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.