Review: Isle of Dogs (2018)

A charming shaggy dog adventure.

Twenty years in the future a “snout fever” outbreak in Japan has banished every sick dog across the country to “Trash Island” – a floating island of rubbish – and a young schoolboy Atari (Koyu Rankin) jets off to save his beloved pooch Spots (Liev Schreiber) in a whimsical and action packed stop-motion adventure.

Isle of Dogs is director Wes Anderson’s ninth film, and his second stop-motion feature, having brought to life Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book Fantastic Mr. Fox, in his own idiosyncratic and utterly precise style of symmetrically infused Parisian cinema, bagging him an Oscar nomination for “Best Animated Feature” back in 2009. But this time around, Anderson has sailed East to Japan and crafted one of the most ambitious films of his career, along with his own travelling ensemble of film stars, character actors, and even a musical icon.

Bryan Cranston is Chief – a stray dog with a pragmatic yet gruff outlook on life who has been dumped on Trash Island – a floating rubbish dump situated on the edge of Megasaki City. He finds himself stranded with a pack of pampered pooches – Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and last but not least, Duke (Jeff Goldblum). The unlucky dogs – all inflected with “snout fever”- find themselves led by a committee, with Rex barking out all of the shaggy dogs’ plans – mostly scrapping with rival hounds, and foraging for rotten food, much to Chief’s chagrin. He doesn’t believe canines should have masters, and he’s always out voted.

Chief has always been an outsider, and none more so, when a light aircraft crash-lands on the island, and the “Young Pilot”, Atari (Koyu Rankin) is pulled from the wreckage by Rex and the gang. The schoolboy is on a singular mission to find his childhood dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber) – and the first-ever dog to be banished to the island. Naturally, Rex wants Atari to be reunited with Spots, as the two of them share a deep bond, which exemplifies the old saying “a dog is man’s best friend” and then some. And wouldn’t you know it, the group’s paws vote in Rex’s favour, Atari and the four-legged friends all trot off into the mountainous wasteland of piled-up rubbish and toxic puddles.

In a world full of over-blown blockbusters, and more often than not, splitting at the seams with bombastic CGI special effects, Isle of Dogs is a refreshing hop skip and jump back to the bygone era of stop-motion filmmaking. There is a wonderfully lo-fi brilliance to the puppets – from the portly and statesman-like dog Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) to the frazzled-haired Assistant-Scientist Yoko-Ono (yes, the Yoko Ono). Every character’s face, whether it be canine or human, has a warmth and soulfulness that is both nuanced and tactile, and at times deeply moving. Chief especially, his mournful blues eyes, and Cranston’s rich and authoritative voice gives Chief’s recurring line “I bite” added pathos, as he and Atari form an unlikely yet touching friendship.

The film’s opening prologue of drumming schoolboys, battling sumo wrestlers, and the ascension of the cat loving Mayor Kobayashi in Megasaki City – who banished the sick dogs to Trash Island, under nefarious circumstances, it is clear we are very much in Anderson’s world, narrated by Courtney B. Vance in a deadpan baritone. Isle of Dogs is alive with all the usual Wes Anderson-ism (novelistic storytelling, overhead shots, centre framing, etc), a style picked apart in many a YouTube video over the years. Anderson’s trademark use of soft pastel colours brings a childlike vividness to the 1960s-inspired futurism of Megasaki city’s day-glow streets and Trash Island’s windswept shores. But there is nothing tired or forced about the frankly bonkers story, which at one point pits an army of robotic hounds against a clan of cannibalistic mutts.

Without doubt, Wes Anderson is a unique filmmaker in a generation of unique filmmakers – (Linklater, P.T. Anderson, Tarantino, Fincher, and maybe Rodriguez…), and much like the colourful iconoclasts that frequent Anderson’s work, the man himself goes against the grain. His oeuvre of whimsical yet melancholic storytelling has grown more elaborate and stylised with each film. Isle of Dogs is a worthy companion to Fantastic Mr. Fox, and proves Anderson’s singular vision has lost none of its charm.

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