Film Review: Isle of Dogs

Wes Anderson wrote, directed and co-produced this (mainly) stop-motion animation epic and it’s about as Wes Anderson-ish as movies get, and that’s not a good thing.

Messier and more convoluted than his similarly executed shot at filming Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009, this one is really asking for trouble in this age of cultural appropriation controversies with its Japanese backdrop and wannabe-Akira Kurosawa trimmings (right down to some music borrowed from his Seven Samurai). It tries to excuse itself with a too-cute opening subtitle that explains why the Japanese humans here talk in their own language while the dogs talk in theirs (ie. mostly American-inflected English), but it’s not enough, and the online screaming matches are already well underway.

With a stylised look that tries to replicate the animation techniques of Rankin-Bass Productions (especially their 1979 TV movie Rudolph And Frosty’s Christmas In July), we open with one of the many flashbacks that will regularly complicate the plot throughout, before picking up in a near-future Japan (although as this is a Wes Anderson movie it seems more like a strange 1960s at times). As a dog-flu has ravaged the canine population and threatens to spread to humans, the corrupt Mayor of Megasaki City, Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura, who contributed to the original story), has decreed that all dogs be dumped on Trash Island, and the first mutt to go was Spots (Liev Schreiber), beloved pet of young Atari (Koyu Rankin), who was adopted by Kobayashi as a publicity stunt.

Later, on Trash Island, four dogs are pals: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum, who contributed his lines via Skype) and Boss (Bill Murray in his eighth collaboration with this director). They fear Chief (Bryan Cranston), a dog-flu-suffering stray with crazy eyes, but eventually team up with him when the runaway Atari crash-lands on the island and strikes out looking for his beloved Spots, who might have wound up in the realm of supposedly evil and cannibal dogs in an isolated part of the island damaged by a past tsunami.

If all this sounds too complicated and adult for kids then that’s because it is, but there’s more, especially when Kobayashi (who never speaks English but we understand as he’s almost always translated by Interpreter Nelson, voiced by Frances McDormand) sends out masked goons with poison-wasabi-spray and scary robot dogs. Atari and the faithful pooches also visit the hallowed Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) and Oracle (Tilda Swinton) for guidance, Chief falls for Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), and everything gets even iffier when young American student Tracey Walker (Greta Gerwig) is the one who sniffs out the conspiracy, and not the plucky Japanese kid. There is a sweet bit where she briefly interrogates former Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono — voiced by THE Yoko Ono — but it still grates.

Despite the enormous effort to make his film appear just the way he wants it (you could subject yourself to a couple of Making-Of featurettes on YouTube, if you so desire), Anderson’s latest is nevertheless all a bit twee, and there’s really something very dubious about the whole thing, no matter how glorious the voice cast might be, or how cute the dogs are. And if it’s too confusing and frightening for children and too dicey for more mature audiences, then just who exactly is this one aimed at?

Rated PG. Isle of Dogs is in cinemas now.

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