Film Review: Isle Of Dogs (USA, 2018) is a tail of love and adventure in the face of adversity

Director Wes Anderson has gradually been making a name for himself as a quintessentially quirky auteur with his unique but meticulously detailed style. So it is no surprise at all that his latest stop-motion animation feature, Isle Of Dogs, is probably his most fine tuned film to date. Bringing a heartwarming tale about love, loyalty and adventure in the face of adversity and doggos… lots of cute adorable doggos.

The story is set in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki some 20 years in the future, where an outbreak of dog flu and snout fever has infected the dog population. In order to prevent potential human contamination, all dogs are decreed by the city mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura who also co-write the script) to be quarantined on nearby Trash Island. His intentions may seem honourable but in fact are rather nefarious. The ward of the mayor, orphaned boy Atari (Koyu Rankin) is desperate to find his dog Spots (Liev Schrieber) who was deported to the island. Helping Atari on his mission are Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (eff Goldblum). And we follow the trials and tribulations and adventure of this motley crew of dogs and their one loyal friend.

There are so many things that make this film a joy to watch. From the stunning stop-motion animation and textured detail of each scene that is beautifully rendered. The alpaca wool hair that was used for the dogs fur, or the cartoon-y fight sequences of animated fluffy clouds with random limbs sticking out, or the 2D rendering of flat images on the televisions or screens. From the city of Megasaki and its traditional sushi preparation techniques and sake bars, to the various landscapes on the Island of abandoned amusement parks and barely functioning power plants. So much care has been poured into every frame that it’s worthy of repeated viewings.

Then there’s the voice cast, each actor brings something adorable to their characters. Norton’s Rex is the democratic strategist, always asking his fellow pack to take a vote. Balaban’s King is the former Doggy Chop celebrity, Murray’s Boss is a sports mascot, Goldblum’s Duke is a gossiper, and lastly Cranston’s Chief is the stray with an existential dilemma and penchant for biting. Goldblum’s singular comedic beat that is repeated throughout the course of the film leaves you anticipating the next one, and he is by far the most amusing character. But it’s Cranston’s Chief whose anti-domesticated grumbly stray unwittingly fills the film with its warmth and heart as he learns to appreciate having a friend. Notable mentions for the brief voice acting moments of Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton and Frances McDormand too.

The script written by Anderson, Nomura and also Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman can be viewed as a not-so-subtle allegory for segregation, exclusion, implementation of propaganda and the manipulation of the masses. But you can also take it on face value as a hero’s journey to find his friend, it just so happens that the hero has four legs and the friend is his boy. And Anderson’s use of having the dogs speak English, whilst all the Japanese characters speak their native tongue (except when being translated by an official translator, or English speaking character, or machine) gives this a unique perspective shift. Forcing us to read our human character’s body language and facial expressions to get more context and understand what they are attempting to convey.

All of this is soundtracked by Alexandre Desplat’s wonderful mixture of taiko drums and woodwind that seems synchronised perfectly with all the onscreen action. Here Anderson is putting on show some definitive loving nods to Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai, Toshino Mifune and Yasujiro Ozu. I guess the only criticism I have is of the hard-line pro-cats and anti-dogs stance of the Kobayashi movement, and say “why can’t we have both?”.

Isle Of Dogs is a visually beautiful and joyous tale of love, loyalty and adventure in the face of adversity. It’s also a heckin good movie full of the goodest animated doggos you ever did see. Much dog, such wow.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 101 minutes

Isle Of Dogs opens in Australian cinemas on 12th April 2018 through Warner Bros Pictures.