Saturday, 12 May 2018

Isle Of Dogs (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: After a plague of dog-flu spreads throughout Japan, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) declares that all dogs will be sent into quarantine on Trash Island. Among those dogs is Spots (Live Schreiber), a guard dog charged with protecting Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), the mayor’s ward and nephew. Determined to get his beloved dog back, Atari makes his own way onto Trash Island where he encounters Chief (Bryan Cranston), Red (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), a pack of alpha dogs who agree to help Atari find his lost pet and, hopefully, prevent further destruction.

I feel a bit at odds in discussing this film’s cast in any great detail because this film’s approach to dialogue is… unique, to say the least. As explained in the film’s opening disclaimer, the dogs’ barking has been ‘translated’ into English, and there’s a few uses of man and machine to translate some of the Japanese dialogue. Everything else is kept as is, with everyone sticking to their native tongue with only sporadic levels of assistance for Western audiences.
Because of this, there’s a rather deliberate language barrier in place for a lot of the exposition, and even some of the more central characters like Atari and Mayor Kobayashi, and I find myself in weird position as far as judging efficacy. To be sure, the voice acting is top-notch and populated with a lot of familiar names, like those mentioned above as well as Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, F. Murray Abraham and Courtney B. Vance. As for the non-canines, what we get is a look at how non-verbal communication can break the cultural barrier as, even as a person who doesn’t speak Japanese to any fluent degree, the physical movements and context clues that surround those words make things weirdly easy to understand.

To that end, animation director Mark Waring, whom also worked on Wes Anderson’s previous venture into animation with Fantastic Mr. Fox as well as the equally canine-centric Frankenweenie, definitely deserves his props because this has to be some of the most eye-catching animation I’ve seen in a while. Both the humans and the animals are depicted with a lot of fluid and natural movement, making it stick rather easily that these are how these creatures actually move in the real world. To add to that, this might be some of the best textures I’ve ever seen in a more traditionally-animated production, again with both the humans and animals being rendered with a surprising amount of photorealism. Following the style of Mr. Fox, and bypassing pretty much any other animated animal flick out there, this stays away from the more plastic and bouncy look and sticks to tangibility. You can almost feel the hairs of the dogs between your fingers with how well they come out here and it serves as a pretty damn good example of what stop-motion puppetry is capable of. Same goes for the world that the puppets inhabit, with both Megasaki and Trash Island feeling like wholly unique worlds unto themselves.

This is somewhat of an expected reaction to a film with Wes Anderson’s name attached to it, as the man has such a truly unique storytelling style that he is one of the few filmmakers working today who undeniably warrants the sometimes-dreaded ‘auteur’ label. There are a myriad of ways to describe how this film looks frame-by-frame: Symmetrical, theatrical, evocative of a doll house, etc. But for me, it all boils down to one simple thing: The vertical line that evenly splits the screen in twain. Everything that is shown in this film, from the opening credits set to Alexandre Desplat’s heart-pumping drum circle percussion to the giant balls of cotton that signify a fight scene is going on to the movements of the characters, conforms to that line in one way or another. It’s not always perfectly symmetrical, as there are parts of the foreground that are placed specifically to break that symmetry, but it all follows the line. 
Because of this, the entire production has this almost-irritatingly perfected craftsmanship behind it, with every scene slotting perfectly into place alongside each other. It’s the kind of production aspect that, once noticed, is difficult to not notice, and while it is certainly impressive in how finely-tuned it is, it can distract from the main beats of the narrative at times.

Which is honestly a bit of a shame because this film, in keeping with its decidedly different approach to family-friendly(?) animation, takes quite a few risks with its story. Apart from mentioning actions like suicide, cannibalism and genocide with a rather dry bluntness, it also manages to effectively toe the line as far as its stylistic ambitions go. From word one, there was much a fuss made over this film potentially being culturally appropriative or, even worse, a ‘white saviour narrative’ where a decidedly Caucasian character must save a native population who cannot save themselves.
However, for a number of reasons, this film manages to avoid both of those pitfalls. For a start, there’s enough precedent concerning the cultural exchanges made between Japan and the United States for this kind of artistic tribute to stand firm, given how much the two cultures have borrowed from each other over the last several decades. For another, even though junior activist Tracy (Greta Gerwig) has a rather prominent role in the main story, (mild *SPOILERS* here) she isn’t the one who ultimately saves the day. Instead, that honour is reserved for the characters that we spend far longer with and whom we have far more vested interest in seeing succeed on their own terms.

And for a third, Tracy ends up feeling like an entry point not just for most Western audiences, but perhaps for Wes Anderson himself. A lot of the film’s world-building as far as where dogs sit in the collective ecosystem is hinged on things like rumours, concentration camps, extermination and forced quarantine of one’s failings so that they don’t need to be properly addressed. Would it be too much to draw my own line to another little thing that connects Japan and the United States? A thing that the Japanese spent quite some time actively trying to suppress their involvement in? A thing that, not that long ago, inspired critical creatives like Satoshi Kon to let out an artistic roar at how much the Japanese were willing to ignore their past sins? This feels far less like soulless and opportunistic reappropriation of a foreign culture, and more a means of exchange with that culture as a means to better understand it. Beyond just the vague racially-tinged rumours we keep hearing. Beyond just the language barrier between Japanese and English. Beyond just a story about a boy looking for his lost dog.

All in all, this marks another triumph in Wes Anderson’s already-weighty filmography. The acting across the board is excellent, particularly from Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber and Koyu Rankin, the animation makes for a refreshingly realistic depiction of the characters in the story, Anderson’s habit of perfectly-balanced framing holds true to make everything pop, and the writing combines Anderson’s traditional dry humour and occasionally morbid subject matter to both create its own universe and make the audience care about its inhabitants. Add to that this film’s cleanly-defined approach to depicting Japanese culture, and the cultural and historical comments that are made under the surface, and you have a very effective film that is sure to please all the senses. Yeah, Smell-O-Vision and touch-friendly cinema aren’t exactly in vogue right now, but with how amazing the animation quality is, you’ll probably feel those senses react regardless; it’s that good.

1 comment:

  1. I've been really interested in this one, having seen the trailer a few times (I love dogs & am very fond of stop motion animation) but didn't realise it had come out yet! After reading your thoughts, I'm even more excited to see it!