Isle of Dogs – a review

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The wonder of Isle of Dogs is how such stiff figures look so animated and expressive

This latest animated offering, Isle of Dogs – named after the island in the Thames – comes from the wild imagination of Wes Anderson. It’s a visual feast but a dogs dinner of a plot. There is something studenty about its constituent parts, experimental for the hell of it, and hey presto, I learn that’s the mode of attack on the material that Anderson wanted.

Anderson is the writer-director who created, obsessive and meticulously you could say, art-house gems such as Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel which I loved for its carefully constructed compositions and colour co-ordination. Isle of Dogs appears to be his antidote to studied beauty – ugliness presented as an expression of style.

Being Anderson he sets about making ugliness beautiful, rather like  the breeding of some types of dogs for special purposes that eradicates almost all recognisable dog out of them. What’s left is distorted dog, like a bulldog or a pug or a hairless dog.

Shooting in high-definition helps to enhance  images, with lots of background sunsets and dawns. His animated adventure set in a dystopian Japan is bleak yet good to look at, lots of clutter, strewn with toxic waste sites, abandoned water dripping factories and precarious heaps of rubbish. I half-expected Jason Statham to appear in the frame driving an all-black hopped up muscle car.

There’s a sense Isle of Dogs is politically motivated but as to what isn’t clear. Dogs are each have the voice of celebrities, regular Anderson collaborators, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, et cetera, and given form and movement by lifelike canine puppets. You are mesmerised watching fleas run around their fur.
The stop-go animation is of the sort that has figures and objects crinkle, a stylistic signature in his previous and very successful animation Fantastic Mr. Fox. But the story is made all the odder by references to Kabuki theater, sumo wrestling, haiku poetry, the paintings of Katsushika Hokusai and the films of Akira Kurosawa, boosted by a dramatic taiko drumbeats of Alexandre Desplat’s surprising score. Heavy drumbeats denote  high drama is around the corner which tends to dissipate in a cloud of cotton wool when a fight ensues cleverly avoid the complications of multi-movement.

My reaction to the film’s content ranges from captivating, annoying, to so very clever and on to racist. I’ll come to that later. Yes, it’s a perplexing pudding of a movie. Only a few of the mutated mutts have any pedigree, and all look nourished on nuclear waste, which makes the film Frankenmutt  meets Armageddon.

The painfully slow process of stop-go motion somehow gives an impression of fluidity. It explodes Anderson’s imagination all over the screen in all directions providing us with a brave and stunning series of compositions. In that, Anderson has employed the skills of Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod’s production design.

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The dogs have mutated one way or another from the toxic rubbish they are forced to eat

The plot begins two decades in the future, in the fictional Megasaki City, where the powerful, pro-feline Kobayashi dynasty has long waged war against man’s best friend – dogs. Fearing a city-wide epidemic of “dog flu,” the nasty Mayor Kobayashi, (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) orders afflicted animals deported to a floating wasteland called Trash Island. (If it sounds like your part of the UK, you’re forgiven.) There food is scarce, creature comforts few, and danger waits around every corner.

A plane crash lands on the island. 12 year-old Atari, (named after early video games?) has come to find his loyal mutt, a short-haired, speckle-eared sport hound named Spots, (Liev Schreiber). Atari, (Koyu Rankin) is the mayor’s rebellious, brave-hearted nephew, the only Megasaki resident determined to get back for his beloved dog. But where to find him on the rubbish-strewn accursed island?

In his quest he is aided by four friendly canines, Rex, (Edward Norton), King, (Bob Balaban), Boss (Murray) and Duke, (Goldblum), and also by a grouchy stray, Chief, (Bryan Cranston), who opposes domestication of any kind. Dogs are proud, wild animals and that’s how they should stay. They add the comedy only to get lost in the general melee later in the story.

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The Fearsome Four set out to find Atari’s dog

What happens next will surprise no one familiar with Anderson’s work or indeed anybody who’s ready stories concerning a rebellious teen in a world of crabby, misanthropic adults.

New friendships arise and political conspiracies are exposed. Young people are presented in a good light, filled with idealism, reason and common sense, their integrity shaming their staid and intolerant grown-ups. And there is the love interest – a hint of mongrel romance between Chief and Nutmeg a posh show dog, (Scarlett Johansson reduced to love interest again). We are given prescient visions courtesy of a TV-addicted pooch named Oracle, (Tilda Swinton). Johansson and Swinton seems to be in every film going these days. All this furry fury-ness is held together with a haunting score and a homage to Kurosawa’s great marshal epics. And this is where the film falls down, in my estimation.

This is a movie made by Hollywood durables. If they’ve ever applauded and absorbed Japanese culture beyond marvelling at a bonsai tree it will be to use chopsticks in a sushi restaurant in Rodeo Avenue. There is a whiff of smarter than the indigenous warriors Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai.

The contentious subject of cultural appropriation has stalked Isle of Dogs since before its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, where Anderson won a directing prize. Should we accept, blindly, a pasty-faced white American filmmaker’s selective, idiosyncratic version of an East Asian society? Is it well-meant genuflection, a pick ‘n mix cultural grab, or a completely insensitive diddy making a fast buck?

By the same yardstick is any great composer’s rendition of another culture’s music insensitive, for example, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade?  The debate can swing off on so many paths. In Anderson’s film I can point the finger at his handling of the story’s human factor for it’s full of stereotyping that has marred his work in the past.

Anderson, a stickler for verisimilitude, has the human residents of Megasaki City speak their native Japanese, a choice that, on the surface, seems very respectful if only so much of dialogue, especially Atari’s, has not been pared down to simple statements and basic often condescending facial expressions. Longer passages are translated aloud by Frances McDormand, but alas, there are moments I felt uncomfortable.

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Wes Anderson at the Berlin Film Festival, with Tilda Swinton and Greta Gerwig

Anachronistically – obviously for our benefit – the dogs all speak clear American English, leaving you to assume they will be dubbed in Japanese for the film’s Japanese market. They even bark in American-English.

From the get-go this visually over-stuffed pudding was always destined to be a messy potage because it begins with odd ingredients that don’t quite compliment each other. How much is lost in translation is anybody’s guess.

The linguistic slop is topped by the singularly inept choice of an American protest student as investigative journalist who appears out of nowhere three quarters of the way through, sporting a hair style from the flippy hippy Sixties, but without smoking pot. She is loud, crass, belligerent, and a pain in the Stars and Stripes. Tracy Walker voiced by Greta Gerwig is the angry voice of the pro-mutt resistance, western democracy in full tilt sent to civilise the slanty-eyed natives. At one point she slaps down a scientist voiced by Yoko Ono. Nobody silences Yoko Ono! Nobody!”

The response to my disappointments is surely that the setting is not meant to be Japan, it’s a fantasy place that doesn’t exist, so all is forgiven, kinda. We are in Wes Anderson’s imagination and we should accept it, I hear readers say.

Well, I am still uncomfortable he missed seeing the cultural pitfalls.  There is beauty and there is ugly, and the racist side is too ugly for my taste. The latent stereotyping loses it half a star. But I’m playing those drumbeats from the movie score as I write this review.

  • Star Rating: Three-and-a-half
  • Cast: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand
  • Director: Wes Anderson
  • Writer: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Nomura
  • Composer: Alexandre Desplat
  • Cinematographer: Tristan Oliver
  • Rating: PG
  • Duration: 1 hour 40 minutes
  • RATING CRITERIA
  • 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?
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