“Whatever Happened to Man’s Best Friend?” – Isle of Dogs (Film Review)

Filmmakers have a style, whether they hone this over a few films or over an entire career. Having a style that an audience can recognise, whether you are a fan of the filmmakers work or not, can be a double-edged sword. Wes Anderson is an auteur with a very distinctive visual style that runs throughout his previous works, all with their own colour scheme and quirks. His storytelling mode is unique as well as how he frames his shots. Written by Anderson with previous collaborators Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, with Kunichi Nomura also brought in to help with the script and make sure the story kept its Japanese authenticity. With a new writer in the mix of regulars, a new way of looking at an Anderson film is created.

In the near future in the city in Japan, the cat loving Mayor Kobayashi has decreed that after the mysterious dog flu that has swept through the city, all dogs are to be banished to Trash Island, beginning with his household’s own dog, Spots. Months later, Atari Kobayashi, the mayor’s nephew comes looking for his beloved pet and guard. A pack of Alpha dogs decide to help him, although Chief, the only street dog of the pack, only joins in reluctantly. Meanwhile in the city, a cure has been found, but the scientist who found it has mysteriously dies, causing ex-change student Tracy to dig deeper into the growing conspiracy.

The incredibly intricate detail of each shot has Anderson’s touch, to the detail of the labels on the trash the dogs eat through, to the posters on the wall of a sake bar. With each puppet lovingly created, the expressions, just like those in Anderson’s previous stop motion animated feature Fantastic Mr Fox are all so unique to each character. Another nice touch, which of course is unavoidable, is the moving fur. Giving the impression that the wind is blowing through, it is the fur being touched by the animators, a similar trait can be observed in the original King Kong.

The film doesn’t fit neatly into a genre, as it is a comedy, drama and conspiracy thriller involving murder and political intrigue. Although there is definitely a Sergio Leone influence in the film, harking back to the Western film genre, this is most certainly a film heavily influenced by Japanese cinema, especially the work of Akira Kurosawa. It has moments of comedic grace; Tilda Swinton plays a pug named Oracle who delivers ominous news as if it were prophecy, when really she just understands TV. Matched with the moving speech Atari delivers towards the end of the film, while being interpreted by Tracy (Greta Gerwig), this makes the film a rollercoaster of emotion that you really don’t want to stop.

The decision to not include subtitles when the Japanese characters speak is an odd choice at first, but a whimsical disclaimer at the start of the film puts you at ease to enjoy the film as it is. With the dogs, the majority of the English-speaking cast as dogs, them not understanding the human characters feels as you are part of the dog pack, going along for the trash compactor ride. This also leaves room for some of the most brilliant and moving parts of the story, with Bryan Cranston as Chief who recalls the one time he had an owner and difficulty to understand why he bites is truly a beautifully delivered speech.

To celebrate the release of the film, there is a free exhibition featuring several sets used in the film on display at The Store X in London. There is also a life-size version of one of the sets and a noodle bar where you enjoy some delicious ramen. With the fantastically orchestrated soundtrack to accompany you around the sets, its feel like you are transported to the real-word Isle of Dogs (no, no that one).

On the surface, Anderson’s latest film is no doubt like much of his back catalogue, but what sets this stop motion animated dream of a film from the rest is the appeal to human nature, crossing over cultural lines of being an American-made film, shot in the UK and influenced by Japanese films. It’s a beautifully crafted story about how much one boy will do for his dog and what one man will do for his ancestor’s honour.

Dir: Wes Anderson

Scr: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura

Prd: Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, Jeremy Dawson

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Kunichi Nomura, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Koyu Rankin, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Scarlett Johansson, Liev Schreiber

DoP: Tristan Oliver

Music: Alexandre Desplat

Country: USA

Year: 2018

Run time: 101 minutes

Isle of Dogs will be released in UK cineams on 29th March.

The Isle of Dogs exhibition will be at The Store X, 180 The Strand until 5th April.

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