Film Review: Isle of Dogs (2018)

We’ve just got home from the cinema when Lucy says, “why was the researcher called Yoko Ono?”
“Because it was Yoko Ono,” I say. “The voice was Yoko Ono. And the character was called Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono.”
“….right.”

I reckon the majority of Wes Anderson’s films tend to provoke these types of conversations. By nature, they’re offkilt, but richly inflected with wit and cultural references galore. Isle of Dogs was no different to the rest of his varied, but somehow still linked, oeuvre.

With Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Edward Norton, and Harvey Keitel, the voice cast is star-studded and anachronistic, in true Andersonian style. Bryan Cranston plays a surly stray dog, Greta Gerwig plays an American exchange student with a spherical blonde afro, Frances McDormand is a translator. Joyously, there’s a tiny, boggly-eyed pug named Oracle, who is the only dog to be able to understand TV and is voiced by Tilda Swinton. Apparently, Anjelica Huston also appears as ‘Mute Poodle.’

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Isle of Dogs is a compact (just 100 minutes) visual punch of a film, set in  fictional future Japan, where politicians whip up mass hysteria about the danger of dogs and banish them to Trash Island, a dismal dump covered in litter and empty sake bottles. A 12 year old boy, Atari, decides to try and get his dog back.  Essentially, the film is about mass hysteria and politicians using fake news for personal gain. Ever heard of that before? Sorry to be that person, but I can think of several groups of people that these dogs symbolise. Anyway, Steph, no need to politicise everything, back to the review.

So, do we get what we expect from Wes – a kooky offbeat directorial style, a carefully curated colour palette? Yes and no. Although the signature directorial style is still there, it’s not all muted pastels – gone are the delicate frames of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and in comes pollution, filth, and drab, grey watercolours. It’s really funny, it’s weird – it’s what you think it will be. If you love dogs and clever cinematography, this is for you. Perhaps my limited knowledge of Japanese cinema hampered the references that fed into the film, but I appreciated all the Wes-isms that I know and love from Fantastic Mr Fox, his first stop-motion animation made in 2009.

There has been a fair amount of criticism of the film for its simplistic portrayal of Japan – sushi, haikus, taiko drums, even something that looked worringly like a mushroom cloud at some point. Personally, I don’t think that the film culturally appropriated Japan, but then again I am not Japanese and it’s not up to me to decide whether it was offensive or not. I understand the negative implications that the ‘good’ characters speak in English, and that all funny or evil characters talk in Japanese, usually without sub titles. In Fantastic Mr Fox, Wes Anderson flings around British stereotypes of fat British farmers, grotesque and greedy and jingoistic – is it much different? Of course, there are arguments for and against, but I could rattle on forever about this, so maybe I’ll save it for another blog post.

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The puppet for Nutmeg, a dog voiced by Scarlett Johansson. 

Alexandre Desplat composed the score, so I was expecting perfection – and got it. With every project he works on, he somehow manages to see the vision perhaps even more clearly than the director. He’s also composed the utterly brilliant scores of Fantastic Mr. Fox, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 & Part 2, The King’s Speech, The Danish Girl, Moonrise Kingdom, Argo, The Shape of Water… I could go on.

I liked the film a lot, and it was an easy watch – it wasn’t like Three Billboards or Call Me By Your Name which stirred up my emotions, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. The storyline was sweet, and it was nostalgic and witty. My not so perceptive closing thoughts are that I love how saying Isle of Dogs out loud sounds a bit like ‘I love dogs’, and then I think of Cat Stevens. Oh, and when the line “dogs really are mans best friend” gets said near the end, all I can think of is Hugh Grant’s Heathrow voice over: “love actually is all around.”

 

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