TL;DR – There are some aspects, like the animation which are superb, but also some things like some of the story aspects that leave you wondering why did they make that choice.
Score – 3.5 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
Hmmm, this is a difficult film to review because as much as it is unique work of art celebrating a form of animation that you don’t see much these days. It is also a deeply problematic story with regards to some aspects of its narrative and characterisation, and as such, it is hard to rectify these two halves. Well, it might be difficult, but then that is what we are here to do today so it is time to rise to the occasion and dive into the world of dogs.
So to set the scene in the near future a terrible flu has infected most of the dogs in Japan. In the Megasaki City, the local government led by the corrupt oligarch Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) banishes all the dogs in the local prefecture to Trash Island, a former industrial zone severely damaged in a Volcano/Earthquake/Tsunami event and now used as a dumping ground for all the city’s waste. The dogs are left to scavenge and fight each other for garbage scraps dumped on the island as they wait for death to claim them. It is here where we meet Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and Chief (Bryan Cranston), a pack of dogs trying to survive but at the point where maybe death is preferable to life, yes this gets super dark for what is marketed as a kids film. However, all of this changes when a plane crashes on the island carrying a little pilot called Atari (Koyu Rankin). He is hunting for is personal bodyguard dog Spots (Liev Schreiber) and is the only human to risk upsetting the mayor and coming across the river to find their dog. However, Atari is also the adoptive ward of the Mayor, so soon goons with their robot dogs come to drag him home and thus the whole dog flu story becomes instantly more suspicious.
Ok while there are a lot of issues with the Isle of Dogs, there are also a lot of things that are simply sublime. The first of these is the animation which is some of the best I have seen in a long time. Stop motion/puppet animation is a style that is, unfortunately, one that you just don’t see that often anymore, and when you do see it in films like The Lego Batman Movie (see review) it is being faked (faked very well) with computer graphics. Well, I think the Isle of Dogs shows why that loss is such a big shame, every one of the dogs felt like a real character with their own quirks and personalities, and part of that is from the animation. As well as this, using the stop-motion means that you have to get creative when animating things like fire, or smoke, or even brawls, and you can see a number of interesting techniques used to create those effects, almost at times like it was out of an Asterix comic. All of this is helped by a constant style that is both quirky yet also delightful, which is an odd balance to get when most of the film is set on an abandoned refuse island. Add to this all the small details like if a character is watching something on TV the animation style of what is on the TV shifts to 2D cartoons, and you have a visually stunning work.
As well as this, I found the music to be superb all throughout the film. Alexandre Desplat uses wadaiko or taiko drums during the chase scenes, which both situates the film into its location but also creates a pulsating rush as the dogs escape the robot dogs and their handlers. As well as this, there were a number of story elements I think were really interesting. Like the look at despotic governance that uses elections as a sham to give false validity to an authoritarian regime. Or that governments can use fear to get people to engage in policies that they don’t agree with. As well as this, though the voice work has issues, I have to say all of the cast are giving 100% and nothing feels phoned in like some other animated animal films of the past that some of the cast have been in. The story, while it is not Pixar dark, looking at you Toy Story 3, it does not hold back with describing the situation that all the dogs find themselves in. Also, look this is a story about family, and the love you have for your dog, and well it is hard not to get emotional about that.
However, here is where we have to look at the elephant in the room and whether through active design or mistake, the writers and director have employed some really problematic story beats that really didn’t need to be there. So one of the artistic choice taking in the film is that all the dogs speak English and all the people Speak Japanese, the latter making sense because it is set in Japan. However, there was a clear decision that the Japanese would not be subtitled, and the flow on effect form that choice leads to some unnecessary and weird places. Part of this leads to the need for those speaking Japanese to be animated with almost caricature expressions so that you know what they are saying without knowing the words which heads into uncanny valley at points. The worst offender in this regard is Major Domo (Akira Takayama) who’s cartoonish villainy is at such odds with the rest of the characters.
As well as this, during the film, there is also this subplot back on the mainland of scientists Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) and Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono (Yoko Ono) discovering a cure for the dog flu and the manipulations of the mayor to cover it up. It is an interesting story but there is a lot of exposition that needed to be explored and that needs to be in English for the audience because they are not subtitling it. So to do this, they have news reports that are weirdly translated into English for no in-story reason, and then also they introduce Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) a foreign exchange student as the only one willing to stand up to the mayor. This is problematic because it plays on the stereotype that of the white saviour coming to save a foreign people, a more updated version of the white man’s burden. However, more so than that, it feels really forced because it is only there because of a choice not to subtitle the Japanese characters, and this could have very easily been a Japanese character if they had used subtitles. All of this is of course not helped by a cast list that looks like every old white man in Hollywood got a bit part. Honestly, individually none of these are really that problematic but when you combine them together it becomes really quite noticeable.
In the end, do we recommend Isle of Dogs? And this is a tough question honestly. However, overall I think that the Isle of Dogs is a film which you should go see even with all its issues, if only for the animation, and the touching story of a boy trying to find his dog.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Isle of Dogs
Directed by – Wes Anderson
Story by – Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman & Kunichi Nomura
Screenplay by – Wes Anderson
Music by – Alexandre Desplat
Cinematography by –Tristan Oliver
Edited by – Ralph Foster & Edward Bursch
Starring – Koyu Rankin, Bryan Cranston, 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, Ken Watanabe, Mari Natsuki, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Liev Schreiber, Courtney B. Vance, Yojiro Noda, Frank Wood, Roman Coppola, Anjelica Huston & Kara Hayward Rating – Australia: PG; Canada: PG; Germany: na; New Zealand: na; United Kingdom: PG; United States: PG-13