Movie Review: Isle of Dogs

Wes Anderson is back with an animated tale set in an imaginary Japan

Isle of Dogs
Directed by Wes Anderson
With (voices) Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Kunichi Nomura, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Harvey Keitel, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Akira Ito, Akira Takayama, F. Murray Abraham, Yojiro Noda, Mari Natsuki, Yoko Ono, Frank Wood

Cult director Wes Anderson returns with another stop-motion animation film. Fans of his strange humor will be pleased with the Isle of Dogs, perhaps his most off-the-wall project yet.

The film uses puppets, mostly of dogs, voiced by Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and other top actors. While the dogs speak English, which we are left to assume is dog language, the people in the film speak Japanese. This is rendered into English by on-screen translators (also human puppets) and by supposedly electronic translating machines. It is just one of many truly odd details in the jam-packed film.

The peculiar tale takes place in the future in a sort of Japan that does not refer exactly to the real place. Computers still use large reels of magnetic tape. Other items are a strange mix of futurism and retro. It is the future as it might have been envisioned in the 1960s.

The story delves into conspiracy theories and dystopian science fiction, but with Anderson's typically dry and deadpan sense of humor. A dog flu has hit Japan, and the mayor of one massive city called Megasaki orders all dogs be moved to Trash Island, a garbage dump in the sea.

A group of five dogs helps a boy, Atari, who is the only one to come to Trash Island to look for his former pet. The search is not an easy one, and the dogs, each quite distinctive, can't always agree.

Meanwhile, back in the city, a scientist is working on a cure for dog flu and an American exchange student and cub reporter, voiced by Greta Gerwig, starts investigating some discrepancies in the official story of what is going on.

For stop-motion animation, the tale is quite ambitious in terms of the number of characters and locations. And so much effort has gone into minor details that it will take several viewings to catch it all.

The script is filled with references to pop culture, including names like Atari, which refers to a game machine, and characters named after Japanese film directors and stars such as Kobayashi and Watanabe. One minor character is even named Yoko Ono, and was voiced by the actual Yoko Ono.

Anderson brings his own visual style as well, with often very flat compositions and characters placed to directly face the camera while speaking.

The director has said the film was inspired by the works of Japanese directing legend Akira Kurosawa, whose best films came in the 1950s and '60s, as well as stop-motion holiday animation by Rankin/Bass Productions, a US firm that outsourced its actual production to Japan.

From Kurosawa's films, there are elements of both his Samurai films, with the bands of dogs fighting battles against attackers, and his modern-day dramas like Dodeskaden, set near a trash dump, and The Bad Sleep Well, which dealt with high-level corruption. Snippets of music from Kurosawa's films can be heard on the soundtrack.

The dogs in Isle of Dogs cover a wide range of breeds, each with their own quirks and peculiarities. Of course, there are some romantic elements and Scarlett Johansson turn up as the voice of Nutmeg, a show dog.

Anderson tried animation before with Fantastic Mr. Fox, which was moderately successful. It didn't really push too far beyond animated tales about forest animals, though. In Isle of Dogs, Anderson tries to create something unlike anything done before, and he largely achieves his goals.

He reaches the level of absurdity and humor found in his live-action films such as The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

There has been some controversy over the film for its depiction of Japan as a series of cultural cliches and for having a Western exchange student as a key character, but the film is clearly a flight of the director's imagination (along with his co-writers), and not meant to represent a real place or time. It is more of a reflection on how Japan is seen in pop culture.

The Isle of Dogs opened the 68th Berlin International Film Festival. Anderson won the Silver Bear for Best Director. It also won the Audience Award at the SXSW Film Festival.

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