Movie review: Isle of Dogs
There’s the heavy sigh of melancholy that defines Anderson’s whole oeuvre in this second stop-motion piece of animation, but as it howls at the loss of childhood innocence, it also recreates a little chunk of magic by hand.
Isle of Dogs
Featuring the voices of: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Courtney B. Vance, Fisher Stevens, Nijio Murakami, Harvey Keitel, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schrieber, Bob Balaban, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Yoko Ono, Frank Wood
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Running time: 101 minutes
By Katherine Monk
Wes Anderson does not want to grow up. But he had to. I think it’s where the heavy sigh of melancholy in his movies comes from: the diminished scale of the grown-up world, where there is no room for mystery or magic, and life becomes a repetitive treadmill of experience until you die.
There’s always a looming sense of tragedy, whether he’s making The Royal Tenenbaums or The Grand Budapest Hotel. Yet, sliding on the veneer of eye-pleasing production design and a deadpan sense of humour, Anderson never sinks into the frozen abyss. He plays on the thin layer of ice above and turns the whole thing into a game.
Best played by members of his peer group who can reference Peanuts, claymation Christmas specials, Akira Kurosawa, 1970s board games, Lassie and Thunderbirds with equal fluency, Anderson’s jeu takes slapshots at the existential condition by simply having fun with it.
Isle of Dogs is a perfect example of Anderson’s entire oeuvre because it takes grown-up themes — political corruption, personal abandonment and all kinds of pollution— and transplants them into a toy-sized set, immediately diffusing the menacing force of reality by making it innately playful.
It’s often referred to as “Wes Anderson’s whimsical quality” — but ‘whimsy’ feels a little too light for the heaviness that fills his frames, especially in Isle of Dogs. Sure: The movie is a stop-motion piece of animation featuring talking canines, but its inspiration is Kurasawa’s post-war film noir and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s story of a boy on a lonely planet (There are also some connections to Andre Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs, but that book — like The Little Prince — is never mentioned as a source.)
Beginning with an introduction to a world 20 years in the future, we enter the Japanese archipelago where an outbreak of dog flu and snout-fever has forced the removal all canines from the mega city, Megasaki. Now running as feral packs on Trash Island, the dogs are forgetting the bond they once shared with man, until a small boy named Atari (Vancouver’s Koyu Rankin) crash lands his little plane in their midst. He’s looking for his bodyguard dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), exiled to the island six months earlier.
Looking to thwart Atari’s progress, the corrupt, cat-loving leader of Megasaki — Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) — sends out robot dogs to destroy every last living being on Trash Island.
Think of it as Wall-E meets A Boy and His Dog, then has a one-nighter at The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s got so much going on, and so much neat stuff to look at, that it’s easy to be distracted by the detailed images. They’re so committed to reproducing the ‘real world’ reduced, we get lost looking at the familiar from a Jonathan Swift standpoint. The ordinary begins to look odd.
Think of it as Wall-E meets A Boy and His Dog, then has a one-nighter at The Grand Budapest Hotel.
That otherworldly sensation is why Isle of Dogs rises above the somewhat mundane plot points and exaggerated characters — not to mention the language barrier. Much of the movie is in untranslated Japanese.
On the Isle of Dogs, the words don’t seem to be as important as the actions. That’s the dog’s reality, so even if we’re getting anthropomorphized animals, they’re still true to their hierarchy of needs and the actors have fun with it all. More importantly, we have fun listening to actors such as Bill Murray, Bryan Cranston and Scarlett Johansson give voice the feelings of dogs.
The dogs are loyal and communicated with each other. The cats are selfish — and simply meow. Humans mostly lie. And eat.
On the Isle of Dogs, the words don’t seem to be as important as the actions. That’s the dog’s reality, so even if we’re getting anthropomorphized animals, they’re still true to their hierarchy of needs…
If there’s any deeper dig at the social reality other than the stacks of trash, morally bankrupt politicians and viral pandemic, it’s the disturbing scenes of sushi-making — showing us a ‘live fish’ turned into food. It’s disturbing.
Technically speaking, there is nothing “alive” in the frame at all. Everything we see before us is an inanimate object, painstakingly animated by teams of puppeteers over the course of two years. One frame at a time.
No wonder it all feels a little precious, in the bad way as well as the good: It’s all contrived, down to the last cartoon joke. Yet, for every gratuitous gen-X nod to nostalgia, there’s also a real, perhaps boyish, tenderness in its desire to elicit an emotional response.
It’s as if Anderson is asking us to come over and play with his toys before he’s forced to put them on eBay. By conjuring a forgotten piece of childhood on a small scale with great care, he offers us the joy of rediscovering a special piece of childhood memory while acknowledging its inevitable loss.
THE EX-PRESS, March 27, 2018