Review: Isle of Dogs (2018)

isle of dogs

Good boys?: American Empirical Pictures/Indian Paintbrush

ISLE OF DOGS…I…love…dogs. I only just got that. Anyway, I have a confession: I’m a cat person. I value their independence, their intelligence and their lack of need to be subservient to us. Anyway, while I don’t particularly like dogs I see all the joy they bring so many, many including, presumably, Wes Anderson. Anderson’s second animated film certainly feels more consistent in tone than FANTASTIC MR FOX and takes his obsessive, almost OCD visuals to a new level.

In future Japan dogs have been outlawed and sent to a trash island to prevent the spread of a deadly canine flu. When an eight year-old boy (Koyu Rankin) arrives on the island looking for his lost dog, a pack of alpha males nominally lead by Chief (Bryan Cranston) take him in and help in on his quest, while on the mainland the cat-loving, canine-ist regime plots to keep man’s best friend out once and for all.

While I understand the criticisms of cultural appropriation, I see it more as an affectionate tourist’s take on Japan. It’s the view of someone who’s been and had the time of their lives, and I related to this having been myself last year. I’d be interested to see how it’s received in Japan, whether it’s taken in what I think was the intended context, or whether it’s seen as a patronising. I’d also be fascinated to see how they address the language element, if in the Japanese version the dogs speak Japanese, then what do the Japanese humans speak?

Speaking of cultural appropriation in animation, how is something like KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS so different? That film uses Japanese iconography to tell an original story that feels like a traditional Japanese fable and yet all the major characters are played by Western actors. At least Isle of Dogs cast Japanese actors speaking in their native tongue and presumably requiring a different type of direction.

It’s a stunning piece of craftsmanship, meticulous on every level. The challenges of getting realistic (if stylised) canine movements out of metal armatures must have been numerous. The rendering of a heightened Japanese culture (the opening temple ceremony, Taiko drummers and screen print-style prologue, very Japanese trash items in making up the background to the dogs’ escapades) and the witty juxtaposition of behaviours (efficient, unfeeling sushi preparation matched with efficient, unfeeling surgery) help to make the film its own thing.

This is among my favourite of Cranston’s performances (and that’s saying a lot). He plays Chief as a remorseful convict, he doesn’t know why he bites, but he does. He’d prefer to keep to himself for the sake of self-preservation and the safety of others, no matter what he really wants in his heart of hearts. I also really enjoyed Edward Norton as the pack’s micromanaging mediator Rex and Jeff Goldblum reining in most of his usual verbal flourishes as local gossip and spoiled brat Duke. There’s no reason – aside from being Anderson’s good luck charm – for Bill Murray to be in this; he’s got so little to do and say. There’s even less point in Tilda Swinton who has, I think, three lines total?

There are things in Isle of Dogs that didn’t quite bowl me over, aside from the not bothered by dogs thing, but they’re difficult to put your finger on. I think like a lot of Wes Anderson films, the Wes Andersonyness is both the best and worst thing about it. It’s almost aggressively quirky and isn’t the least bit bothered if the ending, and everything that’s been set up by the story and characters up to press doesn’t fit. Overall, especially if you’ve been to Japan, it’s a hugely enjoyable comedy/sci-if/fable. If you love dogs, it’ll be unmissable. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright, Taika Waititi and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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