Isle of Dogs review: Wes Anderson's latest is quite the treat

Wes Anderson's latest is the opening film at the Berlin Film Festival

Geoffrey Macnab
Thursday 15 February 2018 21:02
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Isle of Dogs trailer

Wes Anderson, 101 mins, voiced by: Bryan Cranston, Liev Schrieber, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson

“Whatever happened to man’s best friend?” That’s the question asked in Wes Anderson’s enrapturing new animated feature. Like all of Anderson’s work, Isle Of Dogs is very stylised, very offbeat and characterised by its extremely dry and often ironic humour. This Japanese-set stop-motion fable is also gorgeous to look at – packed full of intricate visual detail. It deals with some weighty themes (ethnic cleansing, fascism and corruption) but does so in an idiosyncratic fashion.

The film is set in the near future. Dog flu has ravaged the canine population, prompting a tidal wave of anti-dog hysteria. Kobyashi, the strong-man mayor of the futuristic city Magasaki, has banished all the poor mutts to “Trash Island,” where they’re fighting to stay alive in the most deprived circumstances. Former pampered household pets are living like strays amid huge mountains of garbage, tussling with each other over scraps of maggot-infested food, and growing weaker, sadder and angrier.

Back on the mainland, some of the dogs’ owners are pining for them. One, the 12-year-old Atari, who is Kobayashi’s nephew and whose parents died in a bullet train crash years before, makes a daring journey in a tiny plane to the island in search of his beloved Spot.

Anderson’s screenplay is structured like a very complicated shaggy dog story. It throws in flashbacks and multiple sub-plots as well as narration from the sagacious old Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham.) The filmmakers also find time to include elaborately choreographed scenes of sumo wrestling or of suchi being prepared or even of kidney transplants.

At times, Alexandre Desplat’s hypnotic score, heavy on the martial drumming, gives the action the feel of an old Kurosawa samurai movie. Anderson is inventive with language, switching from English to Japanese – and not always providing translations or subtitling.

The dogs get into plenty of scraps, some of them very violent. Ears are bitten off, Some of the animals are left with horrible scars. Whenever two packs engage in battle, we see a whirlwind of dust. Hair flies. There is yapping and howling. Even in this grim world, romantic sparks still fly, especially when the glamorous poodle Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) sashays through the garbage.

Away from their masters, the dogs are evolving their own form of canine democracy. Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston) is the alpha male type, a stray who won’t sit for anyone and who wants to lead the gang. The other dogs, though, like to make their decisions by consensus. At the most dangerous moments, they will take time out to debate what plan of action they should follow – and will decide on a show of paws.

One of the most engaging of the animals is the little pug, Oracle (voiced by Tilda Swinton), who can seemingly see into the future. (In fact, the mutt can understand what is being said on the news and therefore learns how to forecast the weather.)

Anderson has an eye for the tiny detail. In any given scene, we might notice rats scurrying away in the background or ticks wriggling on the skin of the dogs or a petal caught in a dog’s hair. Kobayashi and his fellow politicians are far more predisposed toward cats than they are toward dogs. There are suspicions of a feline conspiracy.

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Isle Of Dogs has some strange shifts in tone. Moments of comic whimsy – a dog being shampooed and manicured, a kid taking a ride at an abandoned funfair – sit next to grim, brooding scenes where we see Kobayashi and his followers behaving like Stalinist thugs. It is not entirely clear why the film has been set in Japan in the first place. Anderson isn’t above stereotyping and resorting to cultural clichés.

Nonetheless, the film possesses considerable charm. He knows just how to milk the pathos from scenes involving, say, the runt of the litter which needs to be bottled fed or the hardened stray who suddenly discovers he has a brother. Anderson is clearly a dog lover himself and his film is bound to appeal to anyone who shares his passion. All in all, the film is quite a treat.

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