Stop-motion animated feature Isle of Dogs is strong on visuals, but director Wes Anderson has given into imaginative whimsy here, paying only incidental attention to the story (pretty silly), its setting (Japan – why?) and its point (is there one?).
Isle of Dogs is Wes Anderson’s second stop-motion animated feature film, the first being Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). No surprise that he should be drawn towards animation. Visual aesthetics have always been definitive of his unique directorial brand. Typically in his unanimated films, the characters are cartoonish, and he uses colour manipulation to transform the material of real life in a painterly manner.
When he fuses style with substance, as in the wonderful The Grand Budapest Hotel, it’s a joy to behold.
When he gets the balance wrong, the weighting is always too heavily on aesthetics. It’s then that his work can come across as twee, hollow, irritatingly cutesy and self-indulgent (except for the hipster-dominant members of his sizeable cult following, for whom he can do no wrong). Unfortunately, for me at least, Isle of Dogs is a case in point. The animation is trademark Anderson and enjoyable enough for a while, but it’s as if he has been let loose in a playpen of visual goodies and given into imaginative whimsy, paying only incidental attention to the story (pretty silly), its setting (Japan – why?) and its point (is there one?).
Located in a near future of Anderson’s imagination, Megasaki prefecture is in the grip of corrupt governing authorities led by cat-loving mayor, Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura), who has banished the entire dog-flu-striken canine population to miserable exile on the well-named Trash Island, with eradication his longer-term agenda. Then in flies 12yo Atari (Koyu Rankin) in a stolen plane, his mission being to rescue his pet Spots (Liev Schreiber).
Fired with new hope at the arrival of Atari, the motley crew of dogs combine to plan a survival strategy, led by loner stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), whose experience with humans has left him emotionally traumatized and embittered. Chief’s gradual unclenching as he learns to trust again, and his promise of redemption through winning the love of a prancing, preening cutie of a female doggy (I just can’t use the term bitch here), is the highlight of the film.
A lowlight is the stereotyping of the Japanese. Kobayashi and his henchmen are guttural cruel-faced hardline despots who would not be out of place running a WW2 POW camp. Worse, is the cultural superiority implied in the pro-dog female American journalism student Tracy (Greta Gerwig), who dresses down a meek (of course) Japanese peer for her passivity (of course) and rouses her to action against the Kobayashi authorities. Gotta have the morally upstanding leader Yank showing the weak little Jap how things should be done. I mean, really.
I should acknowledge that most punters at the screening I attended seemed enthralled by Isle of Dogs, waxing lyrical on the way out of the cinema. And many reviewers have been gushing praise. Me? I was bored. As well-conceived and executed the visuals, the animation distanced me emotionally, rather than drawing me in. The story was too flimsy for its 100 minute duration and without a thematic rudder. And Anderson’s choice of Japan as the setting seems to have been based on nothing much more than some sort of superficial decorative appeal.
Star ratings are ridiculously reductive approximations at the best of times, and especially challenging for Isle of Dogs. I dunno – 3.5 for the animation and 1.5 for the rest. That averages out at 5/10, so let’s make it 2.5 overall. And 5 for hipsters.
Movie Website: http://www.isleofdogsmovie.com/
Isle of Dogs features: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Kunichi Nomura, Greta Gerwig
Director: Wes Anderson
Writers: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura
Runtime: 101 min
Australian release date: Isle of Dogs in Australian cinemas from 12 April 2018
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