Isle of Dogs

 

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This new work from Wes Anderson is a triumph but not quite a masterpiece.

 
Isle of Dogs
  

This terrific entertainment is so individual that it could only be the brainchild of one man, Wes Anderson. Everything he has made to date has borne his personal stamp while also proving that he is an artist of remarkable range in that no two of his films are alike. Indeed part of the surprise of Isle of Dogs lies in the fact that on paper Anderson does sound to be doing the last thing one would expect of him in that, this being his second stop-motion animated film, it does indeed suggest that just for once he is repeating himself. The fact that in 2009 he gave us out of the blue the Roald Dahl adaptation Fantastic Mr. Fox was itself characteristic in that there had been no reason to expect that he would turn to animation in this way. Anderson being Anderson, it might have seemed a safe bet that he would never make another feature that was totally animated. But look closely at Isle of Dogs and you will find that because the story it tells is a screen original, a work devised from Anderson’s own imagination and written by him with like-minded colleagues, this new piece functions in ways quite distinct from Fantastic Mr. Fox.
 
Set in Japan in the near future, Isle of Dogs tells a tale in which a Prologue is followed by four titled sections. The villain in it is an authoritarian figure, the mayor of Megasaki who plans to rid the world of dogs: aided by scientists he finds a way of creating such illnesses as dog flu and snout fever so that he can banish the animals who become affected to the isolated region of Trash Island, brand them as dangerously aggressive and ultimately exterminate them while taking care in the process to conceal the fact that other scientists have found a serum that cures the victims. However, the first dog to be sent to Trash Island is Spots and he belongs to the mayor’s ward and nephew, the twelve-year-old Atari, who promptly pilots a plane to the island to save the pet to whom he is devoted. He soon finds himself aided by other dogs there and the quest to help Spots soon turns into a brave endeavour to reveal the truth about the mayor and to defeat him.
 
On one level this is a standard fantasy with a child hero and a storyline akin to those in which the world has to be saved (in this case, however, it’s the world of dogs and these very animals together with the boy and a female journalist are those whose efforts we follow and for whom we root). At the same time Isle of Dogs hints at another level too even as it entertains us with its brilliant images (the animation is all the more stunning because the images come in all the riches of size and detail possible on the ’Scope screen). No less are we entertained by dialogue that is smart and witty in a way that makes this film an even safer bet for adults than for children who may or may not take to its stranger elements. But the storyline also suggests something more than entertainment since the way in which the dogs are threatened with extinction brings to mind the Holocaust.  
 
Given the context, on first making that connection one wonders if such seriousness was really intended. However as the plot develops the dark parallels proliferate: the mayor’s use of fake news to deceive the public makes one think indirectly of Trump, while the mayor’s approval of poison to kill a former associate who has become critical of his actions and whose death is then claimed to be a suicide reminds one directly of current accusations against Putin.
 
In recommending Isle of Dogs strongly I should also refer to Anderson’s respect for the Japanese aspect of the movie that nevertheless goes hand in hand with a film buff’s jokiness about subtitles and such cinematic techniques as flashbacks. I feel too that working with friends here has brought out a sense of collaborative enjoyment in the filmmaking process itself, although some people may feel that given the exceptional voice cast (see the credits below) quite a lot of players are given roles that underuse their talent. That worries me not at all, but I do need to explain why I take the view that despite its multitude of pleasures Isle of Dogs is less than a masterpiece.
 
The issue here becomes clear when one compares this piece with certain other feature films wholly or partly animated. Disney’s Lady and the Tramp (1955) may be the most famed animation entertainment featuring dogs later followed by treatments of 101 Dalmatians, but as escapist works pure and simple they are worlds away from this new film. What I do find relevant is to contrast Isle of Dogs with both the Paddington movies and with Animal Farm. The latter also dating from 1955 is an outstanding example of a serious cartoon feature, its character stemming from the fact that its aim was to bring George Orwell’s classic warning against repressive dictatorships to the screen. As against that, both Paddington and Paddington 2 are brilliantly successful in being entertainments in which underlying concerns about common humanity and how that ought to affect our view of immigrants are present without preaching: they provide a genuine social conscience without for a moment interfering with the sheer fun on offer and the two fit together perfectly. I see Isle of Dogs as existing somewhere between these two works in that its serious themes are neither wholly of the essence as in Animal Farm nor effectively under the surface without losing their potency as in the two Paddington movies. Consequently, Anderson’s film is a little too much of a hybrid to be a master work, but it is even so enormously engaging and a film that triumphantly seems shorter than it is. To borrow a word from Mark Kermode, bravo!

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Voices of  Bryan Cranston, Rankin Koyu, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Scarlett Johansson, Kunichi Nomura, F. Murray Abraham, Ken Watanabe, Tilda Swinton, Yoko Ono, Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, Fisher Stevens, and Courtney B. Vance (narrator).

 

Dir Wes Anderson, Pro Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales and Jeremy Dawson, Screenplay Wes Anderson, from a story by Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Nomura Kunichi and Wes Anderson, Ph Tristan Oliver, Pro Des Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod, Ed Ralph Foster and Edward Bursch, Music Alexandre Desplat, Animator Dir Mark Waring.

  
Fox Searchlight Pictures/Indian Paintbrush/American Empirical Pictures-20th Century Fox.
101 mins. USA/Germany. 2018. Rel: 30 March 2017. Cert. PG.