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Isle of Dogs (2018) directed by Wes Anderson

A dog’s life in a futuristic Japan

Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animated feature is set in Japan 20 years in the future, where the dog population of Megasaki city has been beset by two disease epidemics: snout fever and dog flu. The city’s mayor, Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura), who is descended from a cat-loving anti-dog clan, decides to banish the animals to a nearby island where the city dumps its trash. This is despite the fact that scientist Professor Watanabe (voiced by Akira Ito) is close to inventing a serum to rid them of their diseases.

One of the dogs, Spots belongs to the mayor’s son Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin) who decides to fly to the island in order to reunite with him. When he crash-lands, he is discovered by a group of five of the resident canines: Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), who decide to help him on his quest. However, the authorities perceive Atari to be in danger and thus send in human and robotic rescue teams. Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, American high school student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) begins to suspect that the dog’s illnesses stem from the corrupt actions of Kobayashi’s administration.

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Wes Anderson at his most charming

Isle of Dogs is another utterly charming and lovingly-detailed fantasy from Wes Anderson. Okay, so when it comes down to it, it doesn’t really break much new ground for this distinctively mannered filmmaker. It offers picture-book visuals with 2D-style tracking shots, old-fashioned adventure movie homages, an all-star cast (providing vocal duties for the stop-motion characters as per The Fantastic Mr. Fox), and a close-knit yet barely functional family/surrogate family dynamic loaded with emotional baggage from the past. Of all of the acclaimed American directors working today, it is surely Anderson who adheres most closely to a formula. On the other hand, there is a certain labour-of-love charm which makes each new variant on this formula feel like such a fresh delight.

Stylistically, this one is a delightful and affectionate homage to the wild idiosyncrasies of Japanese culture. Several actors from the country perform in their own language, usually without subtitles. Instead, the film relies on English-speaking interpreter characters at some moments and the fine art of visual storytelling at others. There are repeated homages to the country’s cultural touchstones over the years: garishly red propaganda posters, bunraku puppet theatre, taiko drummers, manga comics, haiku poetry, cheesy 1960s science fiction, such iconic paintings as The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai, the national obsession with cats and so on. The highlight, perhaps, is a sushi-making montage so lovingly-realised that it will make any seafood lover feel hungry - if it weren’t for the fact that the meal is capped off with some poisoned wasabi.

Isle of Dogs (2018)

All of these references are weaved seamlessly into the stop-motion animated framework to build up an utterly beguiling onscreen world. There are some other charming touches on display here, especially the fluffy cartoon-style clouds punctuated by flying fists and feet which represent the fight scenes.

However, as with Anderson’s other films, the delight doesn’t just come from the visuals: it comes from the warm performances and witty character observations. There’s a lot of fun to be had from the disagreements between Chief (the gruff Bryan Cranston-voiced stray who nominates himself as the group Alpha) and his fellow pack members who insist on holding democratic votes even while seconds away from a perilous situation. However, as the story goes on, we get more of a poignant sense of this thrown-together group of canines lamenting the loss of their place in the world and seizing the opportunity to redefine it by becoming heroes in Atari’s eyes. Greta Gerwig is another standout as the plucky conspiracy buff Tracy Walker who becomes the film’s heroine. There’s also a vocal cameo by Yoko Ono, playing a scientific assistant of the same name.

Isle of Dogs has been accused of cultural appropriation by a number of critics. However, the painstakingly affectionate attention to detail in every scene, coupled with the amount of Japanese talent which has been directly involved in both writing and voice acting, are strong counter-arguments to this. It’s another piece of cinematic joyousness from a director who has always stamped his own personality on his work - and it’s a great personality.

Runtime: 101 mins

Dir: Wes Anderson

Script: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura

Voices: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton

Rating: ☆☆☆☆

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