Film Reviews

Isle of Dogs

Published April 12, 2018
Atari and friends ride the dumpster in 'Isle of Dogs'

It may be the Year of the Dog but the Japanese are definitely cat people. Until recently Fido held his own against Kitty as a domestic pet but now the cats are in the ascendency and are surging ahead. It could hardly be otherwise with the ubiquitous Maneki Neko (“Hello Kitty!”) waving its paw in every second shop window. There are shrines and cafes devoted to cats. One of the most famous modern Japanese novels is Natsume Soseki’s I Am a Cat (1905), in which a feline narrator makes droll observations about humans.
The cats may seem unstoppable, but the dogs of Japan have found a champion in dandyish, obsessive-compulsive, American filmmaker, Wes Anderson. The irresistible Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s second foray into stop-motion animation, following his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009. He has made a movie unlike anything ever seen before, although – as with all of Anderson’s ventures – there are sly homages to many other directors, mostly Japanese.
The story begins with a preamble about a legendary confrontation between the dogs and cats of Japan, with the cats represented by the war-like Kobayashi clan and the dogs defended by a boy samurai. We segue to the near future, where a fictional cosmopolis called Megasaki has fallen under the control of one Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), a thuggish strongman with more than his share of Trumpisms.
The canines of Megasaki have become infected with various mysterious ailments such as Dog Flu and Snout Fever so Kobayashi proposes a radical solution: all dogs will be rounded up and quarantined on Trash Island, an immense garbage dump located at a safe distance from the city. As a gesture he volunteers Spots (Liev Schreiber), the guard dog of his ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin), as the first to be sent into exile.
Soon the island is teeming with hungry pooches scavenging for food scraps in maggot-infested garbage, while reminiscing about the cushy lives they used to lead. We meet five of them: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), and Chief (Bryan Cranston). The latter is the only one not to have left a pampered life. He’s always been a stray who mistrusts the kindness of humans and, as we learn in a later sequence, blew his only chance at domestic bliss through his own neurotic aggression. (“I bite.”) Chief is the self-declared leader of the group but is out-voted four-to-one on every decision.
Atari steals a small plane and flies to Trash Island in search of Spots. When he crash-lands he is looked after by Chief and his companions, who promise to help him locate his dog. Back in Megasaki, Mayor Kobayashi and his pals are acting increasingly like gangsters who will stop at nothing to prevent a group of scientists from perfecting a serum for Dog Flu. Meanwhile, the opposition to the Mayor’s tyrannical regime is building among the ranks of dog-loving students, led by Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), an exchange student from Ohio with a blonde afro and freckles. I won’t reveal any more of the plot, which restages those time-honoured confrontations of good vs. evil, idealistic youth vs. corrupt adulthood.
Anderson is happy to exploit every preconception about his characters being “Man’s best friend”. The dog buddies are unflaggingly loyal and true. They speak like comrades in Hollywood war movies.
One of the most controversial aspects of this film is that much of the Japanese dialogue has been left untranslated. Some have argued that this is disrespectful or patronising to the Japanese, but it’s a weirdly narrow-minded idea. Isle of Dogs is self-evidently a love letter to Japanese culture by a director who acknowledges his own status as an outsider or voyeur. Anyone who wants to sample a really patronising view of the Japanese might dig out Truffaut’s Bed & Board (1970), although there is no shortage of examples.
No critic could deny that Isle of Dogs is a visual tour-de-force. The many faces of Trash Island make for mesmerising viewing as we accompany the dogs on their quest in search of Spots. The mutts stare us straight in the eye, and we stare back. Anderson’s trademark geometric precision in the framing of each scene is complemented by a score by Alexandre Desplat that chugs along with the rhythm of a conveyor belt.
This great, seductive fairy tale of a film, set in an exotic east that most Americans will never visit, is also a parable of rebellion for our times. Mayor Kobayashi’s penchant for rallies and demagoguery is all too reminiscent of what we see in America today. So too is his scheme for scapegoating one group who are to take the blame for all the evils of society while he and his croneys enjoy the spoils. We see that it’s a very small step from demonisation to imprisonment to potential genocide, and think about Sinclair Lewis’s famous novel of 1935, It Can’t Happen Here.

Isle of Dogs
Directed by Wes Anderson
Written by Wes Anderson, after a story by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura
Featuring the voices of Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Yoko Ono, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, Liev Schreiber, Ken Watanabe
USA/Germany, rated PG, 101 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 14 April, 2018