Isle of Dogs movie director: Wes Anderson
Isle of Dogs voice cast: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel and Yoko Ono
Isle of Dogs movie rating: 2.5 stars
With Isle of Dogs, Anderson returns to stop-motion animation after Fantastic Mr Fox. And what better medium, you would think, for a film about a Japan sometime in the near future, whose images unspool like a Japanese painting. And who better than Anderson, the director with perhaps the most aesthetic vision in Hollywood, to do it.
All of that holds true for Isle of Dogs, a film about dogs being banished by the mayor of a fictional city to an island full of trash, and the search of a 12-year-old for his own dog who has been sent there. He is the only human who makes the trouble to make that journey, as one dog points out. Rarely do stories get simpler than this, and rarely have they been as simple in Anderson’s own oeuvre, where he often sees the strange in the ordinary.
Isle of Dogs was the winner of the Silver Berlin Bear at the Berlin film festival this year, and picked up several other awards along the way. But the unusual way Anderson chooses to tell this story apart, Isle of Dogs is disappointing, in the stereotypes it wields, in the history it seems not to care for, in the clever jokes it can’t resist succumbing to, and ultimately in its treatment of the four-legged species it seems devoted to. At the end of the day, when the world achieves its balance, as it must, dogs who have been subjected to all kinds of cruelties, without anyone really protesting but an American from faraway Cincinnati, are happy returning to the service of their old masters, man.
But then that desire for status quo permeates Isle of Dogs, even if 12-year-old, one-kidney Atari (Rankin) would be the hero of it. Could Anderson be hinting at the banishment of Japanese during World War II by Americans off main cities in this parable? On the contrary, it is that American foreign exchange student, Tracy (Grewig), who gets the dogs out. And the city she is from, Cincinnati, is often known as the first “really American” city. Plus, while she gets to speak, speak, in English, the film doesn’t translate any of the other humans talking in Japanese, banking more on expressions and barked-out words.
Could the presence of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson together in Japan, and those dialogues lost in translation, be another hint at that, better film? One keeps wishing, though Johansson devours the couple of scenes she is in as the much-desired showdog Nutmeg. The scientist seeking to save the dogs is called Watanabe, and his assistant we only get to know later is called Yoko Ono (voiced by Yoko Ono). And Yoko Ono does little but be shaken into action by, who else, Tracy. Before that Tracy takes over running of her school’s paper, which goes by the unlikely title of ‘Daily Manifesto’.
While the film is focused on the dogs themselves, including the quarted voiced by the delightful Balaban, Murray, Goldblum and Norton, a stray who is the outsider (the crochety Cranston), and their interactions with Atari, it is at its best. There is real innocence in those encounters, and dismay and puzzlement over what has come to pass.
Making it about a despotic regime is a failed attempt.