2018 Film Reviews: Isle of Dogs
Friday 14 April 2018
Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
ISLE OF DOGS. Starring by voice: Bryan Cranston, Kohu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Lief Schreiber, and others. Directed by Wes Anderson. Rated PG (Mild themes, animated violence and coarse language). 101 min.
This American film is a stop-motion animated comedy written, produced and directed by Wes Anderson. The film tells the story of a young boy who goes looking for his dog after the whole dog species is banished to an island which is a vast garbage dump off the coast of Japan. The film was awarded the Sliver Bear for Best Director at the 68th. Berlin International Film Festival, 2018.
Wes Anderson is one of the most talented and unusual film directors working in the US today. He gave us the the brilliant, quirky “The Royal Tenenbaums” in 2001, and the multi-Oscar nominated “The Grand Budapest Hotel” in 2014. He is a master of patterning his film images in a highly structured and distinctive way. This is his second excursion into animated movie-making. The first was the acclaimed “Fantastic Mr. Fox” in 2009, which used the same animation technique that is used in this film. And Bill Murray has appeared in every Wes Anderson movie to date.
In a Japan of the near future, 20 years hence, a massive dog virus called “snout fever” has infected a city’s canine population, and the dog flu threatens the human population of Megasaki, a fictional Japanese city. The city’s mayor copes with the problem by banishing all dogs to Trash Island (but he happens to love cats much more than dogs). The first dog to be banished is Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber) who belongs to Atari (Kohu Rankin), the orphaned nephew and ward of the mayor. Atari steals a plane and flies to Trash Island to find his beloved dog, and he enlists the aid of five dogs - Rex, King, Duke, Boss (voiced by Bill Murray), and Chief to help him. They are all concerned that Spots might have fallen victim to a cannibal tribe of dogs on another part of the Island, but Spots has survived and has been accepted as their leader. The dogs on Trash Island learn that the mayor plans to exterminate all of them, and after finding Atari they decide to return to Megasaki City to thwart his plan - which is to release a poison that will exterminate them. A computer hacker ensures that the Island dogs escape the release, and so avoid a painful death. By the laws of election, the mayorship of the city falls to Atari, who decrees officially that all dogs be allowed to integrate into the city to permit them to be man’s best friend.
This is a movie that is extraordinarily unusual. It is full of astonishing images, and tells the story of outcast dogs and a faithful boy. It is witty and political, and has abandoned dogs taking on a corrupt and authoritarian government, and winning. Its themes range widely from coping with authoritarian regimes, to managing corruption in high places, doing something about climate change and the control of waste, and ensuring proper cultural assimilation for different groups.
The symmetrical patterning that characterises so many of Wes Anderson’s movies in the past is used throughout. Each shot is meticulously composed, coloured vividly, and extraordinarily detailed. Even the garbage on Trash Island is especially constructed to enhance the patterned images that Anderson wants to create. Scenes in the movie are boldly drawn, and the film uses visual and aural images dramatically and starkly. This is a delightful adventure tale, but the story unfolds against a background that is politically provocative, and in its connections to Japan, there are multiple references to the movies of Akira Kurosawa, including his famous, “Seven Samurai” (1954). The film is thematically heavy, but the heaviness slides past, while beguiling canine behaviour fills the screen.
Steeped in Japanese pop culture with familiar signs of ghoulishness, and futuristic symbolism, this is a quirkily crafted film open to multiple interpretations. It is warm-hearted on the surface, but delivers thought-provoking challenges underneath. At all levels, it shows the creative and inventive genius of Wes Anderson at work, and he has delivered a stylish animation film that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. In combining tragedy and comedy with social bite, however, the film shows a depth which is much more than what meets the eye, but above all, the film demonstrates Anderson’s unbelievable imagination gleefully at play.
Peter W. Sheehan is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting