Movie Review: Isle of Dogs (2018)

In the mangy dog
Beats the heart of a lover
Truly man’s best friend

— Howard Elias, 2018

Writer-director Wes Anderson (THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL; MOONRISE KINGDOM; THE DARJEELING LIMITED) is known for his quirky films so when it was announced that his latest project would be another venture into stop-motion animation, it came as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with his work. If anything, the news was met with huge anticipation. After all, his 2009 film, FANTASTIC MR. FOX, was also stop-motion animation and it garnered scores of awards and nominations around the world including two Oscar nominations.

With ISLE OF DOGS, the setting shifts from England to Japan. The time is twenty years into the future but it’s hard to say when the clock started ticking as there are plenty of delightfully retro items to be seen throughout the film. Kobayashi-san comes from a centuries-old line of dog haters. Now, as the mayor of the whimsically-named city of Megasaki, he has made canine quarantine the cornerstone of his re-election platform. The dogs, we’re told, have multiplied out of control and, to make matters worse, a dog flu-like virus is infecting them, turning them into mangy, disoriented curs. To show his commitment, Kobayashi exiles Spots, his 12-year-old ward, Atari’s, dog to an offshore island trash heap. Atari, though, wants his beloved pet back, and he commandeers a small plane, flies to the island and, with the help of a pack of infected dogs that have also been shipped there, embarks on an odyssey to find Spots and bring him home. Meanwhile, a group of dog-loving, high school students led by American foreign exchange student Tracy Walker see through the mayor’s nefarious plot to completely rid Japan of dogs and they mount a spirited resistance to bring the autocrat down and return the animals to their traditional place as man’s best friend.

Before I get to the story’s not-too-subtle political message, let me first deal with the film’s craft. Wow! ISLE OF DOGS is one incredibly meticulous work of art. Each frame is filled with detail and subtle movement, much more so than in FANTASTIC MR. FOX, which was an amazing film too. Apparently 27 animators and 10 assistants worked on creating these miniature puppets and sets, painstakingly manipulating each one hundreds of times to give them life on the big screen. (There’s a fascinating “Making of…” video available on YouTube that’s well worth checking out.) ISLE OF DOGS is an absolute treat to watch, though there are times you may find yourself struggling to take everything in before the scene shifts. This film is very fast paced, so much so that the nearly two-hour running time just flies by.

The voice cast comprises a virtual who’s who of Hollywood actors and includes many Anderson regulars like Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton and Fisher Stevens. Bryan Cranston, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson and Greta Gerwig are the leads here and they are all wonderfully entertaining, imbuing their roles with their own character. Courtney B. Vance serves as the story’s narrator and even Yoko Ono has a voice cameo as a scientist who goes by the name of, wait for it… Yoko Ono. Alexandre Desplat, who took home an Oscar for his music in Anderson’s THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, has also returned to do the music here too, and it is suburb, especially the taiko drum pieces. (Desplat most recently won his second Oscar for THE SHAPE OF WATER.)

As for the film’s political message, unlike FANTASTIC MR. FOX, this film, even with all its wit and laugh out loud moments, takes a subversive tack for better or worse. It’s obvious to anyone of voting age (or even younger, especially if you’re a student living in Parkland, Florida) that the story takes a hefty swipe at politicians who seek to divide through fear and persecution of minorities. One line, which sounded remarkably similar to something our city’s previous Chief Executive said during our own Occupy protests a few years back, evoked the biggest laugh from my audience.

Some critics have taken the filmmaker to task on a few issues – cultural appropriation, the relative dearth of women’s roles and having a white saviour. On the first issue, I have problems with people who cry foul anytime an outsider makes a film about a culture not their own. Weren’t there similar complaints about the film LOST IN TRANSLATION? Move on, I say! On the issue of the casting gender imbalance, I would agree with that. Some of the dog roles, or even some of the Japanese student roles, that went to male voice actors could have gone to women. Why did the computer hacker have to be a boy? Girls can code too. On the issue of the story having a white saviour, I also had difficulty with that. I don’t think it was necessary to have a foreigner as the force for change in the country. That being said, none of these are deal breakers by any means. This film is simply fabulous and it may just be the best one you’ve seen so far this year.

Sorry, no Facebook Live this week as the studio’s Internet connection crapped out while I was recording. Instead, you can listen to the review recorded live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, April 19th at 8:30 am HK time! Go to Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 30:00.

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