ISLE OF DOGS

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Wes Anderson

Stars: voices of Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Bob Balaban, Liev Schreiber, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, F Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Yoko Ono, Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura, Ken Watanabe.

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Isle of Dogs is the new stop-motion animated film from idiosyncratic director Wes Anderson, who previously ventured into this field with The Fantastic Mr Fox in 2009. The film features some great, visually edgy and very stylised animation that works as a homage to Japanese animation, particularly the films from the famed Studio Ghibli.

The film is set in a futuristic vision of Japan where an outbreak of “snout fever”, a canine disease, threatens the human population of the fictitious city of Megasaki. The corrupt mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) passes a decree in which all dogs are exiled to Trash Island, the quarantined off shore dumping ground for all of the city’s rubbish. He sets an example by sending his own family pet Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber) into exile.

But Atari, the mayor’s adopted 12-year old son (voiced by Koyu Rankin), heads off to Trash Island to find and rescue his beloved pooch. There he meets a pack of feral dogs led by the outlaw Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston). They decide to help him find his beloved Spots. Atari becomes a symbol of social action and his actions set off a chain of events that will change the future of the archipelago.

Meanwhile back in Megasaki, Dr Watanabe (Akira Ito) believes that the dogs can be cured and is desperately working on perfecting an antidote. Also Tracy (voiced by Greta Gerwig), a foreign exchange student and activist, is trying to expose Kobayashi’s corruption.

Written by Anderson and a team of co-writers including regular collaborator Roman Coppola, the film serves as a clever allegory about corruption, the abuse of power, prejudice, and ethnic cleansing, which gives the material a topicality and contemporary relevance. The dialogue is clever and witty, and delivered in typically deadpan style. The film is steeped in Anderson’s typical sense of whimsy and off-beat humour. It is also steeped in an understanding of Japanese culture and seems to be paying tribute to the rich history of Japanese cinema and is heavily influenced by the films of the legendary director Akira Kurosawa.

But the writers also throw a lot of bizarre ideas at the screen, giving it a very busy feel, but not all of it is successful. In a bold move, Anderson has the Japanese characters speak in unsubtitled Japanese, although some of it is rendered into English by an omnipresent translator (voiced by Oscar winner Frances McDormand). The canine characters all speak in English.

Alexandre Desplat’s percussive score mixes traditional Japanese music with jazz and other influences that perfectly suits the mood of the film.

Anderson has assembled a superb vocal cast that includes Cranston, alongside many regulars, like McDormand, Schreiber, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton, F Murray Abraham, and Scarlett Johansson, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Greta Gerwig, and Fisher Stevens, as well as several Japanese actors like veteran Ken Watanabe.

The garbage-littered island forms a rather grim and bleak backdrop for the story, and a great deal of attention has gone into creating this wasteland and this dystopian vision of Japan. The animation itself is very detailed and colourful and every frame is painstakingly shot by cinematographer Tristan Oliver, a specialist in lensing stop motion animated films. The animation for the dogs is angular and their movements uneven and unnatural. And a colourful prologue sets the scene by revealing Japan’s early history when dogs were revered in households until a revolution between rival clans saw the population turn against their pets.

Those who have enjoyed Anderson’s previous whimsical films will find much to enjoy in Isle Of Dogs.

★★★☆

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