Film Review: Isle of Dogs

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Filthy, Hairy Bastards

Either you’re a Wes Anderson fan or you’re not. If you are, you’re a sucker for the artistry he brings to each story, the whimsy, and laconic, self-conscious dialogue. If you’re not, that lack of spontaneity (or the illusion thereof), and his arm’s length approach to characterisation, for no Anderson film ever truly made the heart sing, will be terminal to engagement; a stall there’s no pulling out of.

Isle of Dogs, a stop-motion animated movie set in Japan, a certain cultural distancing being a good fit for the filmmaker’s style, provides all the usual Andersonian staples – formalism, metatextuality, pretentiousness. However, if you’re inclined to look at it the other way, this tale of exiled mutts sent to an island in the wake of a dog-flu pandemic, who help the nephew of the corrupt city mayor find his lost pooch, is the antidote to anodyne Disney fare; the kind of cloying, confected goop that’s anaesthetising the brains of children and adults alike.

If you can get past the smugness – the hipster self-satisfaction that runs through Anderson’s oeuvre like a fart in a sewage pipe, there’s something refreshing about a story that incorporates cultural influences, rather than appropriating said culture (Mulan, Pocahontas, etc); a story divested of sentimentality or conspicuous emotional manipulation. The characters, all voiced by actors chosen for their sardonic shtick, Ed Norton, Bill Murray, Brian Cranston, Greta Gerwig – deadpan their way through, the antithesis of Robin Williams unleashed, or the syrupy naturalism employed in House of Mouse features to captivate younger viewers.

As ever, Anderson speaks directly and without apology to the harder of heart, the disaffected, the fringe, and they thank him with dream epithets like “auteur” and “wit”, though he’s probably too reliant on his influences to deserve the former, and there’s less of the latter than you remember.

Regardless, Isle of Dogs is a visually sublime and occasionally amusing story, likely to appeal to both sino and cine-philes. Yes, I know it’s set in Japan not China, but that pun doesn’t work otherwise and I rather liked it. This kind of self-indulgence, by the way, is the sort of thing Anderson’s offering.

There’s less material here than the great man believes, and consequently the film starts to drag beyond the hour mark, but it’s an artistically vibrant and lovingly-made watch that fans of the maestro will take to heart as further evidence of their cultivated sensibility. That said, Disney’s Robin Hood is still roughly 200 times better.

Directed by: Wes Anderson

Country: US/Germany

Year: 2018

Running Time: 101 mins

Certificate: PG for Ed Norton, wasabi, and Yoko Ono appearing as a character called Yoko Ono.

2 Responses

  1. Joshua says:

    This review was so painful to read. How in the hell was Mulan appropriating Chinese culture? Disney must have really hurt this guy. And people call Wes Anderson smug.

    • castricv says:

      He’s talking about setting a movie in another culture/time/country and then having the people living in that space act and rationalize pretty much like modern Americans of one bent or the other. I don’t necessarily agree with how common he thinks it is but the subject is not hard to understand nor see it in motion from time to time. Basically are the characters Americans with modern ideas in period costumes in a different cultural setting?

      For Isle of Dogs he tries to stay with Japanese themes, even language as often as possible even to the point of over generalizing that country and stereotyping with obvious tropes from his favorite 50s era Japanese films. He plays the Seven Samurai theme song, the baddies wear Zoot suits, and the school kid outfits and general weirdness are all played up. These characters are in an odd way admittedly, behaving like perceived Japanese people in their actions and thoughts, not merely playing an AMerican with a fake Japanese accent.

      As for the review itself, I didn’t mind the film nor did my kids whom I thought after 30 minutes would be bored to tears but weren’t. I unfortunately was. MAybe I find the self-absorption tiring or the forced crying cringy, but I actually checked my phone 4 or 5 times. He even threw in a Back to the Future reference with the chocolate milk for some reason simply so that a few people in Anderson’s age range could have a chuckle at how cool he is.

      The film meanders without real spirit. You feel like this beautiful crafted world has limitless possibilities for telling a story yet it constrains itself into smaller and smaller boxes. The baddies are basically cartoon characters. The dogs are nice but seem like the vapid hipsters in Portlandia after a while. Musing about trifling things and passing it off as witty banter. As a parable it is week, as an actioner it is boring, so what’s left? As in most Anderson films, the pretty scenery and he thought that “I get things” like the smart people. But truth be told I’ve only felt he’s truly succeeded in one film — The Grand Budapest. The rest of them including this one are literally the same robotic mewing with high pretentiousness in a cool looking Ikea showroom, not amounting to anything.