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Review: Isle of Dogs

Image: Animation World Network

Isle of Dogs sees Anderson master another animated film, telling the story of a boy who undertakes a quest in search of man’s-best-friend. Atari’s dog, Spots, was exiled at the initiation of a city-wide cull of dogs. Whilst the dogs Chief, Duke, Rex, King and Boss struggle to survive on Trash island, a rubbish heap off the coast of the mainland Megasaki city, there is a fight for justice in the cosmopolitan heights of the city as pro-dog activists and scientists aim to debunk the theory of ‘dog flu’ created by the ruling Kobayashi family.

Image: Animation World Network
Image: Animation World Network

Anderson is no stranger to creative and resourceful filmaking. Melding artistic techniques, he creates a unique display of traditional Japanese storytelling through paintings and drawings and brings to life live-action sequences through stop-animation. Anderson joins the many directors opting for the mature-twist on the previously child-focused stop-animation. Much like Fantastic Mr Fox (2009) and Coraline (2009) the murkier themes death, euthanasia and oppressive governmental regime make clear that Isle of Dogs is not aimed at the juvenile spectator. That’s not to say that the film is not accessible to children, with the aesthetics alone being enough to excite the imagination. Although children may miss the foils between the clinical and wild world or the inhumanity of the practise of euthanasia, the thrill of the chase, the canine characters and the explicit imagery would greatly appeal to a younger audience.  Many Disney films are aimed at children, yet provide a wealth of entertainment for the accompanying guardians. It feels as if this film was imagined in this image, but became too engrossed in its mature themes to be completely tailored towards a younger audience.

Despite the continual technological advances in animation, Anderson chooses to use what seems like every second frame in the film to create a basic, even scratchy style; perhaps used to show the basic primal themes of belonging, love, adolescence and survival. These crude themes work well with the echoes of early Western filmaking. The stand-off between dogs and the warm-summer-night romance between Chief and Nugmeg harks back to a time of classic filmaking, creating a fusion of East Orient meets Western film. At times in the search for Spots the soundtrack and the cinematography reminded me of the 2000s comedy genre in cult-classic coming-of-age stories such as Juno (2007), also a young rebel fighting against an institutionalised regime. The mixture of gritty coming-of-age with refined features of Japanese artistry and the fight for dogs’ rights often causes an unwelcome melting-pot of imagery and plot device. Furthermore, there is not an obvious genre classification for Isle of Dogs as it spans comedy, action and fantasy. It sometimes seems as if it was Anderson’s intention to confuse his audience, expressing clarity only on certain themes and characters. The protagonists, Atari and the dog pack, remain consistent throughout the film. This gives the film stability when the plot is redirected towards a murdered scientist and the girl desperate to avenge him. This entire sub-plot is somewhat pointless as it detracts from the main quest yet delivers little substance. The ‘good guys’ in Megasaki city are a necessity to the fight against the oppressive regime, however the character Tracy Walker, a pro-dog American exchange student, seemed to serve the sole purpose of love-interest to an uninterested Atari; reaping off the age-old teenage girl infatuated with a hero cliché. In my opinion, the theme of love in this film connects dogs with their owners, not two teenagers.

Isle of Dogs is undoubtedly a film of universal themes. Perhaps the continual theme of adolescence explains why, when we can’t understand the language, we feel an affinity towards Atari. Interestingly, the Japanese language does not inflect in the same way that English does and therefore doesn’t show meaning and intent in the same way. It is surprising therefore that we can understand what is being said based purely on the body language of the characters and the response their speech arouses in others. It has been argued that the use of Japanese makes characters such as Atari inaccessible to viewers as we never hear him express his thoughts; these are either left untranslated or are translated by other characters. This is noted and in fact celebrated by Anderson who highlights this inability to access Atari’s thoughts during a particularly passionate speech whereby one of the dogs remarks ‘I wish someone could speak his language.’ I see the use of Japanese as firstly artistic and secondly a method by Anderson to show that the primary themes of adolescence, friendship, love and morality transcend countries and therefore language.

The film makes clear use of foils. There is a real sense of old vs new, the new robot dogs, new manifesto to banish the dogs and the new technologies fuse with Japanese tradition. However, there is a clear aim to separate this new mega city (mega’s even in the name) from the dilapidated world of Trash Island. Everything about the heroes is dusty, broken and beaten yet they prevail due to their unshakable devotion; the key characteristic of any loyal dog. The foil of good vs. bad is typical yet done well by Anderson who shows fragility on both sides and grants the evil forces redemption.

The decision to use dogs is clever as any Western audience would struggle to conceive a world where dogs are mistreated, favouring the brazen cat instead. Exiling one species for another, mishandling an innocent group, it is easy to see the analogy of unwanted individuals. This supports a popular theory that the film is a statement on the current state of immigration, with the inhuman treatment and degradation of many refugees being likened to the punishment of a naughty dog. It is possible that this is a cry for viewers to recognise cruelty towards a group or race, resonating with spectators through the use of a familiar and lovable animal, questioning the humanity of the many in the poignant question, ‘whatever happened to man’s best friend?’

Given the lack of substance of some of the characters and plot devices whether Isle of Dogs seems to me more concerned with making a statement on the current treatment of immigration and human rights then it is on the quest and the redemption of the dogs. Nevertheless, viewers can enjoy a melange of artistic styles, bringing to life the characters of both Megasake and Trash Island. Although the styles often clash, they conceive an explosive mix of humour, action and the battle against good and evil.

See in cinemas: City Screen and Vue.