Regular contributor Monika Maurer reviews Wes Anderson’s latest adventure, Isle of Dogs. Showing in the PAC cinema from Friday 27 April to Thursday 3 May, tickets are available to book online now.
The word charming doesn’t necessarily spring to mind when watching a film starring a pack of flea-ridden, scabby, sneezing, filthy dogs living in a canine displacement camp called Trash Island, but it perfectly describes Wes Anderson’s latest offering.
The film, Isle of Dogs, is set twenty years in the future in a fictional, dystopian Japanese city called Magasaki. Various diseases, including the dreaded “snout flu”, have ravaged the canine population and, as a result, the city’s corrupt mayor has banished all dogs to a bleak, off-shore island that serves as the local rubbish tip. The dogs live and fight and survive among the rubbish on Trash Island along with the rats and the ticks and the mosquitoes.
Grim and bonkers as it sounds, this stop motion feature recalls Anderson’s 2009 feature Fantastic Mr Fox, and is anthropomorphism in its most exhuberant form. The dogs are brought to life with wisps of fur moving in the breeze and fleas running through their coats, and when tears well up (of course dogs can’t really cry) all disbelief is suspended, even though suspension of disbelief is a prerequisite here: At the very start we are informed that, for the purposes of the film, “all barks are rendered into English”.
The plot follows Atari, the mayor’s 12 year-old ward and the search for his own canine protector, Spots, who has also been banished to the island. Crash landing his “Junior Turbo-Prop” rocket ship on Trash Island, Atari teams up with a pack of self-styled “indestructible alpha dogs”, a band of battle-scarred, sneezing misfits led by Chief (Bryan Cryanston). Their hunt for Spots takes them across the industrial wasteland of the island via a series of mechanised, eccentric and sometimes menacing modes of transport. Meanwhile, a pro-dog group led by aspiring investigative journalist and foreign exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig) leads a revolt against the mayor with the help of research scientist Yoko Ono (voiced by Yoko Ono). Just like Fantastic Mr Fox, the sometimes tenuous plot here revolves around a sense of kinship, meticulously-detailed capers, missions and escape plans.
The cast list alone should give you an indication of what deadpan fun and outright kooky treats you are in for. Along with Cryanston, Gerwig and Ono, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton and Jeff Goldblum are all up for some zany fun.
But unlike Fantastic Mr Fox, which was based on a children’s book, Isle of Dogs feels more demanding in nature, more grown up. The film doesn’t shy away from adult themes and has a prominent message about oppression and discrimination and what happens when corrupt governments work to silence a population. While the use of animated dogs makes its appeal more universal there are other aspects that make it more impenetrable for children. While the dogs “speak” English, the human characters speak in their native tongue, but there are no subtitles for the Japanese and only some of it is translated by interpreters.
Despite this and despite the group of sometimes fidgety pre-schoolers at the screening we went to, I am happy to report that we all loved it, including the ten and twelve year-olds (the story is, after all, about a 12 year-old boy’s search for his dog). Saying Isle of Dogs quickly enough turns it into “I love dogs”, and the love for four legged fleabags of all shapes and sizes on screen here is palpable – but you don’t have to love dogs to love this film; just cinema and the power of imagination.