Movie Review: Isle of Dogs
If you say the title to Wes Anderson’s latest quirky stop motion adventure fast enough, it will probably come out sounding like “I love dogs”. The word play rings true, as this ode to man’s best friend couldn’t be more charming, more campy in its sophisticated self awareness, or more idiosyncratic in its storytelling, which altogether makes it a Wes Anderson film. Given his latest features plenty of bark and bight.
His latest of odd worlds is just as outlandish as the setting of ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ or his other stop motion picture ‘The Fantastic Mr. Fox’. This is because of a seamless blend of political distortion and the adventures of Akira Kurosowa that have stapled themselves in the time capsules of cinema. We even get to relive the unmistakable boisterous and goosebump prompting inspiration of the ‘Seven Samurai’ soundtrack as the underdogs attempt to reclaim equality in a cat loving society. Yes, that was not a typo. Twenty years in the future, the fictional Japanese city Megasaki is run by a haunting dog hating dictator whose Municipal Task Force’s logo is an outline of a cat’s face. In his free time, he leads an “anti-dog” movement, leaving the few dog loving left wing activists (pro-dog) to fight for the persecuted (the dogs themselves). Making the movie’s political undertone is quite timely as its corrupt and towering power hungry villain is framed similar to Welles in ‘Citizen Kane’. Though it is his corrupt tendencies and indecency to minorities that trumps his frame.
‘Isle of Dogs’ not only ventures into the distant and criminally–from a cinematic standpoint– unexplored East, but into the boundaries of an aesthetic quiddity. It tells of a world nearly as layered as its intricate stop motion characters, one that consumes you into an equally distant and recognizable fable. The Anderson tropes, Kubaki Theater, sumo wrestling, cherry blossom trees, Katsushika Hokusai’s paintings, and inspiration from the films of Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Studio Ghibili are observable, however, this still remains unlike anything you have ever seen. It s at once shaggy and polished, heartfelt and heartless, with splashes of the old and the new: making it difficult, if not impossible to categorize. Is it strictly an animated film, or perhaps a political noir, or simply a Wes Anderson movie? Whatever the case, I found myself wagging my tale at its waggish wit.
The story, divided into eight parts, follows “a pack of scary, indestructible alpha dogs” as they call themselves. Though really, they are just as adorable and cuddly as the ones you have at home. These dogs, and the rest of the Canine population, have been issued by the Kobayashi family to a ‘Wall-e’ inspired apocalyptic trash island, the isle of dogs. Distraught, the Kobayashi’s youngest member, a twelve year old who, in search of his lost dog “Spots”, commands a spunky Junior-Turbo Prop XJ-750 plane and sets off without warning to the folkloric island he hopes his pet calls home. Along his journey through the agrarian isle, he meets a plethora of nuanced individuals and the audience joyously deciphers their personalities as well as their recognizable voices. Not only are the usual suspects of Anderson’s work vanguard, but a hodgepodge of new talent as well–their voices that is. It won’t be easy finding a better cast this year, with the likes of Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Scarllett Johansson, Bill Murray (it wouldn’t be a Wes film without him), Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Liev Schrieber, Harvey Kietel and the decidedly Morgan Freeman esque narration from Courtney B. Vance. All of whom bring an energy and life to their distinctly written characters.
Yet it is the production team who deserves the credit for erecting the stop motion world and the heroic dogs that inhabit the cleverly detailed landscapes that contrast each other–the trash island an ever expeditiously brilliant land where the rubbish waste is second rate to the breathing infrastructure– and the lavish city that basks in a culture of dark hues and even darker conspiracies. Though when push comes to shove, it is the dogs we remember. Their fur bristling in the wind, their deep eyes portraying emotion, and their love for their masters reminding us of our very same sentiment towards them. Marching to the moving chorus of Alexander Desplat’s 50’s Japanese Cinema inspired score, I found myself tapping my feet, as I witnessed scrappy fights turn into cotton balls, barks turn into romance, and barks, then, cleverly turned into English. In one of countless deadpan interactions, we hear the boy speak in his native tongue (Japanese), followed by an “I wish someone spoke his language” response from a member of the pack.
Skeptics may view ‘Isle of Dogs’ as stereotypical whitewash, where the non-translated Magasaki are converted to immigrants in their own beloved city. Whereas I do find this to be an interesting choice from Anderson, it wouldn’t be his most peculiar of concepts, that title still belongs to ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’. Nonetheless, it is easy to dismiss this and unbalanced tonal shifts for the aboriginal adventure of amusing entertainment in ‘Isle of Dogs’. In ‘A Fantastic Mr. Fox’ the stop motion animation propelled the pictures energy. Here, it slows it down, as we discern every frame as if it was a work of art. Making it not all too far fetched to label this as one of the best of the year thus far.