Opening this year’s Glasgow Film Festival is the acclaimed Wes Anderson’s much-anticipated return to the world of stop-motion (his first since his 2009 gem Fantastic Mr. Fox) with Isle of Dogs. And here's my verdict.
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After an outbreak of canine flu takes Japan by storm, Mayor Kobayashi (Konichi Nomaur) exiles all dogs to an isolated trash island where they fight for scraps and struggle to get by, unaccustomed to this rabid lifestyle. However, when Kobayashi’s precocious 12-year-old nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin) runs away to this island in search of his long-lost dog Spots, a pack of the animals – led by the dogged stray Chief (Bryan Cranston) – help Atari in his pursuit to find his treasured canine. Meanwhile, back in Japan, a pro-dog group of students revolt against Kobayashi’s corrupt leadership, seeking a cure for the canine flu, wanting their beloved pets to return home and be instilled back into society once again.
If there is one filmmaker we can count on to always tell original, inspired stories, uncompromised by the Hollywood blockbuster fad eating up most bright filmmakers out there, it’s Wes Anderson - and his latest film is quite the treat! Isle of Dogs is fantastic. Whilst it’s not the renowned director’s best film, it’s certainly his most audacious and most imaginative yet (a big statement considering this is the man that brought us the likes of the freewheeling Grand Budapest Hotel and the fanciful Moonrise Kingdom), not to mention his darkest endeavour to date too – and, yes, this is a “family-friendly” animation. Of course, it’s gorgeously animated. The stop-motion work is stunning, with Anderson’s trademark style and meticulous attention to detail and nuance seeping through every frame and unwavering throughout; the shots are beautifully set-up and there are breath-taking visual set-pieces and sequences aplenty here. The animation explodes with energy and colour (this film makes even trash-covered dogs and an island covered in rubbish and litter look great) – so lusciously, and ever-so-carefully, crafted. Visually, there’s so much going on and it’s typical Wes Anderson in its extravaganza.
But there’s more to Isle of Dogs than just some pretty animation; from the offbeat nature of the story to the dry, ironic and quippy trademark Anderson humour to the precision of the visual palette, this is perhaps the most Anderson-y film of Wes Anderson’s career yet. But it’s a film with bite and a great message at its core. Thematically, this film is bursting with Japanese references and iconography – paying homage to the likes of Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki – whilst sadly perhaps eschewing too much actual representation – there’s no real need or reason given for the setting being in Japan, other than Wes is perhaps interested in the place. But the film does have a fascinating socio-political commentary flowing through it, one that harrowingly reflects our own world perhaps a little more than we’d like. However, this is a film about the dogs. And the dogs are terrific. They’re so superbly realised; the gargantuan, star-studded ensemble that features talents the likes of Jeff Goldblum, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Liev Schrieber, Yoko Ono, Edward Norton, Greta Gerwig, Courtney B. Vance and Anderson regulars Tilda Swinton and Bill Murray amongst so many others all do a terrific job in their roles and breathe so much life and energy into their characters.
However, the film isn’t without its flaws. Similarly to most of Wes’ projects, Isle of Dogs lacks any pathos or emotional payoff grounding it; it’s a delightful affair, but one that can feel a little empty without any real weight to it. Also, as interesting as the political/human side of the story can be, the film does feel lacking when the dogs are off-screen and the humans are present – they’re absent of the depth, nuance and witty camaraderie of their canine counterparts that makes them so enjoyable to watch – and we just want to return to the central story on trash island. There’s also a lot going on in the fairly slick 101 minute runtime, and a lot of characters that make an appearance, and it can cause the film to feel a little too frenetic for its own good; it never feels convoluted but, in the opening and closing 10 minutes or so especially, the film just races at a breakneck pace and so much is going on that it can feel a little too jarring and frenetic for its own good. But these are all small complaints about such a film that gets so much else right. Isle of Dogs is subliminally realised, compelling in its nature and its ideas, and beautifully brought to life through gorgeous style and punch; it’s a film that has a bite, it’s sharp and urgent but it’s also hilarious, charming, even a little dark at times too, and, all the while, utterly riveting to watch. It’s a mature, original and inventive piece - just another remarkable addition to the backlog of one of the finest filmmakers working today. Doggone Wes Anderson, you’ve done it again… DOG-gone, this film is barking mad. And just so great!
ISLE OF DOGS OPENS IN THE U.K ON MARCH 30TH, 2018.
About the Author
Founder of Oasis Awais, and avid lover of life, Awais Irfan's love of writing and film is unequivocal. Ever since he was a little kid, he has loved the cinematic experience; so much so, he is studying Film Production in Glasgow and hopes to be the next "big thing" in directing.