30th March 2018 (UK) 6th April (US)
Set in Japan, Isle of Dogs follows a boy's odyssey in search of his lost dog.
Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Greta Gerwig
Creator of contemporary quirk Wes Anderson returns to animation with Isle of Dogs, a film which displays all his trademark techniques and exhibits some of the best and most unique stop-motion work in history.
Due to overpopulation and the increase of ‘Snout Flu’, all dogs in a dystopian Japan have been banished to Trash Island by the cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi – despite the scientist Professor Watanabe claiming to be close to a cure for the illness. Six months after the decree is made, Kobayashi’s young nephew, Atari, steals a small plane and flies it to Trash Island to rescue his pet Spots.
Crash-landing on arrival, Atari is rescued by dogs named Rex, King, Duke, Boss and Chief who agree to help him. Well, all but Chief, who was a stray before being deported and has no trust in humans. Along the way, they meet an array of other canines including the former show dog Nutmeg and wise duo Jupiter and Oracle who aide them in their adventure.
Meanwhile, back in the city, the Mayor plans to completely exterminate all dogs after his imminent re-election. Can Atari find his dog as well as prevent the ultimate eradication of man’s best friend?
The cast list is an absolute dream for lovers of Anderson’s previous work. Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray and Bob Balaban have all worked with Wes prior to Isle of Dogs and lend their voices to bring characters to life. Bryan Cranston is continually cranky as Chief, Jeff Goldblum stirs up rumours and gossip as Duke, Edward Norton is Rex the alpha dog, Bill Murray is the former mascot of a Little League Baseball team named Boss and Bob Balaban rounds off the pack as King, who in his life in Japan was a representative for Doggy Chop dog food.
Scarlett Johannson impresses as the showoff show dog Nutmeg, Tilda Swinton and F. Murray Abraham are delightful as Oracle and Jupiter respectively, while Harvey Keitel appears as the mysterious and misunderstood Gondo. Finally, for the main cast anyway, Greta Gerwig, who recently directed and wrote the indie hit Lady Bird, voices foreign exchange student and protester Tracy Walker and handles the story back in Japan as she fights the Mayor on his plans to destroy Trash Island.
Anderson’s first venture into feature-length animation came in 2009 with the stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox and he employs a similar technique method with his latest work. It’s a much more smoother effort in Isle of Dogs though and the unnatural movement of the fur seen in Mr. Fox is nowhere near as jarring here. It’s a beautifully animated piece of art and the meticulous level of detail is exquisite, even for a perfectionist such as Mr. Anderson. Re-watches of Isle of Dogs are almost obligatory to fully appreciate the detail that has gone into every frame.
Flawless animation aside, it’s imperative to keep in mind that Isle of Dogs is a thoroughly ‘Anderson-ey’ film. If you’re not accustomed to his style and existing offerings such as Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou or The Grand Budapest Hotel there’s a high chance you may not be fully on board with what it offers. The marketing has been a little sneaky in my opinion, appealing to the mainstream family cinemagoers with previews attached to Peter Rabbit and Paddington 2, but the humour and dialogue are drier than a Bonio and some of the themes touched upon are too mature to be suitable for younger viewers. The visuals are captivating, but the pace walks without pulling on the leash and large sections of the film are spoken in Japanese without subtitles meaning it will test the attention spans of growing pups.
That last point is a quirk typical of Anderson but is explicitly explained at the very start of the movie. Instead, human characters get their point across through the emotion shown on their faces. There is an interpreter, voiced by Frances McDormand, but she is only present when Major Kobayashi’s addresses the nation. It’s another smart move by Anderson to subvert the norm – instead of being able to understand the humans, it’s the dogs who get the voices we can comprehend and there’s even a joke about dogs not speaking the language of humans.
The score deserves praise too as Alexandre Desplat takes influences and pieces from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Drunken Angels to deliver the pounding, drum-heavy Japanese flavored audio that’s moodily atmospheric and perfectly complementary to the action on screen.
Like all of Anderson’s back catalogue, I fully appreciate the style and symmetry but I never felt like I loved Isle of Dogs. The work that has gone into it is undoubtedly painstaking and yet I still didn’t fully connect emotionally with the story or canines. I also felt like that about halfway through the focal point of the narrative shifted to Chief, and the rest of the pack were essentially forgotten about. Chief’s story arc develops too unbelievably and rapidly also and doesn’t feel organic to what we’ve been told about him already.
Nonetheless, if nothing else Isle of Dogs should be commended and admired for its ambitious animation. For families intended to take their young children, be aware that its dog-bone dry tone, mature themes and deliberate choice to omit subtitles on Japanese dialogue means it’s not the family movie the previews have suggested, but Isle of Dogs is a gorgeously realised stop-motion world in which Wes Anderson fans will be entirely in their element with its endless eccentricity.
Flawlessly animated frames which will make you want to revisit
Incredible cast list who don't disappoint
Pounding, drum-heavy score
More admiration than love for the overall film
Hard to connect with characters or dogs
Not a family friendly movie as the previews suggest