Film Review – Isle of Dogs


I’m grateful to Fen, a showbiz acquaintance of mine for pointing out the title of this film means something when you say it out loud.

I Love Dogs. Isle of Dogs. Get it?

Indeed, this is a sublime, surreal love letter to our beloved canine companions and anyone who is lucky enough to own a dog will rejoice in the tale.

A dynasty of cat loving Japanese folk have been in power so long that dogs have fallen out of favour with the general population. Vilified for spreading sickness and suffering a population explosion, the four legged beasts are banished to “Trash Island”.

Our hero, Atari Kobayashi, a 12-year-old boy, is the adopted nephew of the prefecture’s leader – the power hungry felinophile Mayor Kobayashi – who is up for re-election on a ticket that promises to eradicate canines once and for all.

When Atari’s bodyguard dog Spots is sent away to the island, Atari launches a rescue mission and crash-lands a small plane into the wasteland to embark on a hunt for Spots with the help of a ragtag bunch of abandoned pets.

(From L-R): Bob Balaban as “King,” Jeff Goldblum as “Duke,” Bill Murray as “Boss,” Edward Norton as “Rex,” Bryan Cranston as “Chief” and Koyu Rankin as “Atari Kobayashi” in the film ISLE OF DOGS. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

At the outset of the film it is explained that the dog characters’ barks will be translated into English. This helps explain the impressive voice cast that includes Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. Also, “some other pieces of dialogue will be translated”, however Atari’s adolescent voice remains in his native tongue, untranslated and not subtitled.

This is one of the many quirks of director Wes Anderson in his 9th feature film and his second stop motion animation. It is about an arty piece of art as you could hope for and that will either delight or infuriate an audience, or perhaps a bit of both.

I enjoyed the technique and craftsmanship that went into making the film. I thought the story was relatively solid, if a little lacking in laughs and originality. Which seems an incredible thing to say for such an original premise, but I did not find too many surprises here.

Koyu Rankin as “Atari Kobayashi” in the film ISLE OF DOGS. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

The film has come under criticism (as just about anything these days is wont to do) for issues of cultural appropriation and white saviour syndrome. As somebody who has studied Japanese and visited Japan on several occasions, I have to say the “cultural appropriation” accusation strikes me as hollow. Sure, Anderson incorporates iconic Japanese cultural items such as cherry blossoms and Sumo Wrestlers as just several of the many varied threads in his tapestry, and is this not allowed because he himself is not Japanese?

Once sequence of sushi being prepared is gorgeously realised and also forms a key plot point, so what, this should be censored even though much of the world’s sushi is prepared not by Japanese but Koreans?

I try to ignore the outcry that accompanies most films these days, whether it’s outrage that jokes could be made about allergies or that somebody has incorporated the culture of another country into a film made elsewhere, I prefer to turn down the white noise and focus my thoughts about whether or not a film is good, did I enjoy it and should you bother paying to see it on a big screen.

This one is clearly a lovingly handcrafted affair with numerous subtexts flowing through the story that have stuck with me since viewing the film.

Are the dogs refugees? Is the Mayor Trump? Any number of interpretations can be read into Isle of Dogs, but at the end of the day, I came home and gave mine a big cuddle and took her for a bonus walk to let her know I love her.

This is a truly unique offering that defies convention on many levels, yet also yields to tradition in areas of narrative and casting. I reckon I’d enjoy watching this one again.

3 & 1/2 Stars – “A Film You’ll Want to Take Home and Hug”

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