Movie Review: Isle of Dogs

Isle of Dogs… a play on the phrase “I Love Dogs” was inspired by a road sign Wes Anderson saw whilst filming his previous stop-motion film, Fantastic Mr. Fox. Anderson is the filmmaker, who brought us films such as: Moonrise Kingdom, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Known for his detailed, fiddly, niche and unabashed quirkiness, he takes it to the next level in Isle of Dogs, an animated adventure drama and comedy set in a near-future dystopian Japan. Isle of Dogs follows the odyssey of a young boy who is rescued by a pack of dogs, who are infected by a strain of influenza and exiled to Japan’s dumping ground turned dog colony, Trash Island.

Influenced by the work of Akira Kurosawa and operating with British animated charm, Anderson immerses himself in Japanese culture, delivering an affectionate chocolate box depiction with Western affectations. Co-mingling English and Japanese, Isle of Dogs is steeped in Eastern culture adopting a strange fuzzy sense of sentimentality to deliver a fascinatingly bleak take on a retrospectively-geared future. Sumo wrestling, haikus, cherry blossoms… it’s an artful, delightful and respectful translation, giving Anderson the chance to lose himself in the stylistic details. From interpretation of dialogue and subtitles to quirky cutaways, Isle of Dogs appears to have been influenced in part by The Little Prince, cutting across a range of animated formats and operating with poetic license.

The animation features a first-class voice cast including: Bryan Cranston, Ed Norton, Bob Balaban, Greta Gerwig, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johannson and backed by regulars like Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel and Bill Murray. While the ensemble boasts a number of Oscar winners and nominees, the visuals are so intoxicating and the cinematography is so beautiful, that you don’t even really notice or strain to recognise the vocal performers.

“I’m afraid I don’t know who let you out… who, who.”

Using stop-motion visual effects, taking thousands of photos and relying on a team of hundreds to realise this tactile production, one gets the impression Anderson is happiest when he’s able to have full control over every minor detail of the frame. While it takes some time to become accustomed to the styling, talking dogs and quaint quirks… it’s not long before you’ve been interwoven into this strange and curious depiction of Japan.

Initially gloomy and a bit dismal for dog lovers, Anderson’s quirky sense of humour quickly surfaces to offset the bleak tone trading up for something funny and endearing even. While there have been accusations of cultural appropriation and adhering to the “white saviour” narrative, there’s definitely a political edge to the Isle of Dogs. In our age of conservation and armchair activism, the film’s comical cat-bashing and attempts to garner empathy for the canine species could be seen as a subversive attempt to personify and raise the profile of dogs in Asia. Telling the story of a boy born into power, who laments the loss of his faithful friend to the point of a rescue operation and possible cure… the pro-active and sacrificial “sticking it to the man” story line is packed with political interpretations.

Isle of Dogs is a fascinating tale, visually compelling, rich in detail and quaintly charming in spite of its deadpan and somewhat detached tone. While it almost overstays its welcome, this is an inventive, original and beautifully crafted stop-motion animated feature powered by offbeat humour and daring creative flourishes. As a niche and self-conscious animated film, it’s definitely not for everyone but will delight fans of Fantastic Mr Fox and Wes Anderson’s offbeat comedy.

The bottom line: Mesmerising