Film Review | Isle of Dogs

Wes Anderson’s return to stop-motion animation is a delightful fantasia that packs both heart and eye-candy, capped off with a trademark flourish of the director’s dry wit • 4/5

Canine superstars An impressive voice-over cast leads the way in Wes Anderson’s heart-warming and clever return to stop-motion animation
Canine superstars An impressive voice-over cast leads the way in Wes Anderson’s heart-warming and clever return to stop-motion animation

The fey, symmetry-obsessed American director Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Rushmore) returns to the world of puppet-based stop-motion animation for the first time since Fantastic Mr Fox (2009) for this cheeky and endearing satirical fable, which opened the Berlinale on the night of February 15. I was admittedly chuffed to have been there on the night itself, where Anderson was present along with his team of superstar voiceover actors and – crucially – a dedicated cadre of animators.

It proved to be an inspired choice for an opening film in a festival which prides itself for setting the cinematic year ahead, even before the glitz of Cannes begins to make headlines – as it is right now. It was also inspiring given how fraught global realities feel at the moment, and how splintered the world of American entertainment itself has been following the Weinstein allegations.

Because Anderson’s fable – co-written with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura – succeeds in offering up a sumptuously imagined and consistently amusing escapist convention, while never quite blanking on harsh realities.

Set in the fictional Megasaki City in Japan and taking place in a vague near-future, Isle of Dogs sees the metropolis’ canine population fall prey to the authoritarian whims of Major Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) – who opts to deal with a canine virus by forcibly deporting all of the city’s dogs to a remote island. The first among this unfortunate bunch is actually Spots – belonging to Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), the Major’s newly-orphaned nephew and ward.

Deciding to take matters into his own hands, Atari joyrides his way to, and crash-lands on, the bleak isle, where he is greeted by a pack of its hardened survivors. Among their number is Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). While the prospect of locating Spots appears to be unlikely at first, help is also at hand from Megasaki City, where American exchange
student and activist Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) begins to question both the ethics and the science behind the Major’s mass deportation efforts.

Actually, closer in tone, ambition and approach to The Grand Budapest Hotel than to the localised domestic dramedy that was Fantastic Mr Fox, Anderson’s ninth feature is a glorious expose of the director’s trademark visual wit, as bolstered by a Japanese aesthetic that helps tell the timeless story of a boy and his dog, with a whimsical-dystopian twist the challenging tonal balances of which only the likes of Anderson can pull off.

There’s no denying the sheer joy to be found in even the tiniest details and the seemingly plot-irrelevant interludes; like the chopping up of ingredients to make unique Japanese dishes, or the longueur where the dogs totter from one side of the island to the other, revealing an array of details that other films would not have found it in themselves to include. Indeed, the stop-motion style edges the experience closer to being an object made by a craftsman. Like a hand-made clock, or even a particularly meticulous Christmas crib, you know each detail was made with the considered care that would have otherwise escaped a committee working against the clock with zero investment in the material.

The charm that pervades the entire enterprise – indeed, in a way that transfers the full, magical weight of that word – is evident in both the cleverness and artistry employed by Anderson and his team. And so, the many instances of spoken Japanese throughout the film are translated, not by the standard subtitled text at the bottom of the screen, but through more oblique means that nonetheless ensure that the message comes across. And given that this is a story that’s all about empathy trumping over fear and bigotry, making an effort to bridge both the spoken and the visual languages feels more than apt.

It feels like a mighty fine use to the cinematic idiom, in fact.

The verdict

Just like Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel snuck in themes of between-the-wars migration as part of its rollicking farce, so this sweet fable comes with a bitter aftertaste; a reminder of how the powers-that-be all to easily marginalise those who are inconvenient, with wrenching and devastating results. In some ways, Isle of Dogs may appear to be little more than a confection, but its hidden depths are worth savouring as much as its – many – visual wonders.

The Isle of Dogs will be screened at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier, Valletta on May 23 and 25 at 19:30 and 20:30 respectively.

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