I’ve seen the film, and here’s my Isle of Dogs review…
I can remember feeling vaguely irritated when I was first introduced to the director Wes Anderson in an incredulous manner by a friend, ‘duh, you don’t know Wes Anderson?’.
Wait, what do you mean; you don’t know who Wes Anderson is?
Okay, that’s hypocritical of me. But rest assured he’s worth looking into, and once you know his films you can take your turn in feeling proud and ridiculing others who don’t know his work. The reason that the director and writer Wes (as he shall be affectionately known as hereon) is now becoming a household name is because each of his films is inextricably linked with the director himself. Indeed, it’s very easy to jump into one of his films unwittingly at any point and know instinctively that it is one of his, because he has such clear trademarks within his own filmmaking, including, but not limited to; quirky angles and close-ups on objects such as books, ending films with a slow-motion shot, wide-angle distorted shots, storylines around broken or unorthodox family circles, lead characters seeking approval of parents, fonts (Futura mostly), precisely-centred straight-on shots, actors showing very little emotion… the list goes on (skip to the bottom to watch the Honest Trailers Wes Anderson video which does a better job of picking out the similarities between his films than I ever could).
Whilst the majority of his films are live action (including The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Darjeeling Limited, The Royal Tenenbaums) he uses elements of stop-motion animation occasionally within them for stylistic effect and has previously written and directed the charming full-length animated feature Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Isle of Dogs follows the intricately detailed stop motion of Fantastic Mr. Fox, complete with many of the typical traits one might come to expect from the director. The story is essentially that of a fictional corrupt Japanese government run by Mayor Kobayashi. He hates dogs and hatches a plan to infect them and have them all evicted to an island with a view to eventually committing dogicide. We are introduced to a small gang of dogs who are barely surviving on the island, and their adventure with a young human called Atari, who makes his way to the island by stealing a plane in order to find his beloved dog Spots.
In the opening scene, we’re greeted by a simple but powerful drumbeat played on screen by three animated Japanese characters on three different percussive instruments. It’s simple but effective as we’re treated to an element of the detail in the film (the characters play perfectly in time to the track) and the rhythm is an overture to the rest of the film, which retains pretty sparse use of music apart from occasional use for heavy, overbearing dramatic emphasis. Throughout the film the effect of the music is not generally to try and force you into an emotive state but rather is often absent, leaving potentially uncomfortable silences that allow the rest of the film to shine on its own merit. The screenplay seems more rather than less impressive because viewers are allowed to feel the emotion without coercion.
It’s hard to know who will watch the film – many people I know have already seen it, but to be honest, I live in Central London and work in Shoreditch, so I think my friends here probably don’t reflect the interests of the whole country. That said, the cast billing is clearly intended to draw audiences: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, Yoko Ono (!) – these actors span quite a wide range of fan interests, and in particular Scarlett Johansson has a big following and her name is on most posters, even though she probably only has about ten lines in the film.
Every character feels rich, much like the scenery, and sub plots ooze out – whether that’s Jeff Goldblum’s ‘Duke’, delighting in sharing rumours that he’s heard, the interpreter who seems to get more and more excited about what she is interpreting (though she tries to hide it at first), the nostalgic sadness of Scarlett Johansson’s Nutmeg, remembering her past as a show dog… the screenplay is tight with wit and repartee which helps to keep the movie feeling fresh, and moves the plot move along even when not much is really going on.
The choice to translate the dogs into English but keep the Japanese language as Japanese (no subtitles or interpretation unless it particularly suits the plot to translate them) gave an opportunity for unexpected comedy and charm as certain recognisable words (biscuit-a, spots-a) come out and provide relief. At no point did I find myself wishing I knew word for word what they were saying, and subtitling everything would have been distracting from the visual splendour of each scene. Speaking of which…
The scenery and animation are the real show stoppers – bringing the storylines and characters to life in a delightfully nostalgic style, full of beautiful cinematography which takes the picture far beyond what one would consider possible of true stop motion. Whilst being a fun adventure with wit and charm, the impeccable detail makes the film watchable on a whole other level – almost as a piece of art (for a short time you can actually visit the scenes on the Strand in London). Every scene is rich with unbelievable detail, as though each is designed to tell its own story, without the presence of the overarching storyline of the film.
There is an element to the film that feels a little like watching theatre: the witty lines particularly feel as though the characters are dryly throwing an off the cuff line to the audience rather than a crafted line necessary to the film, resulting in some unexpected laughter even in a stiff-upper-lip-British cinema!
Isle of Dogs is a film that will allow for watching over and again, as a triumph of master craftsmanship and detail, to enjoy the many wonderful cinematic set pieces, and to be entertained by the wonderful characters and their voices. I highly recommend watching it in the cinema if you can, to get a real sense of the detail involved.
Thanks for reading my Isle of Dogs review! As a bonus, here’s the Honest Trailers breakdown of every Wes Anderson Movie for your enjoyment: