Whilst I enjoyed Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox, I did feel that he took some liberties with the source material, and I’m not sure I enjoyed it compared to the book. But I did love the animation; and when I saw the similar look to Isle of Dogs, my interest was well and truly piqued.
Isle of Dogs is an interesting film. At first glance, it looks like a standard family animation – but there is an extremely dark subtext to it. I was surprised how dark it became. But I did find it highly enjoyable – maybe not “Film of the Year” standard, but still good in its own way.
So here is my “ruff” review (terrible pun I know) of Isle of Dogs.
Set in a future Japan, where dogs have been expelled to Trash Island for spreading a terrible flu that COULD potentially infect humans. However, Atari (no not the video game company) travels to Trash Island to find his dog, Spots – the first one to be banished.
Along his journey he meets a pack of dogs, led by Chief, and they set out to try and find Spots. But time is running out, because the authoritarian Mayor of Megasakai is trying to implement a plan to get rid of the dogs permanently. Meanwhile, back in Megasakai, American exchange student Tracy Walker is fighting to save the dogs, knowing that a cure for the canine flu is about.
WHAT I LIKED
This film had an AMAZING voice cast. The cast included actors like Bryan Cranston, Ed Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Ken Watanabe, Scarlet Johansson, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Yoko Ono – and that’s just the ones I can remember! All of them added deadpan character depth to whichever role they played, even if it was just a bit part.
The animation is just beautiful. Mixing in stop motion with some animation – and even slight Anime – effects, it created a realised world, rich with Japanese inspired culture and mythology. The beautifully coloured city of Japan (some of it invoking classic Japanese art) hid the dark underbelly. This was a world ruled by propaganda and fear mongering – in which a corrupt governmental society turns an entire species against each other. Mmmm, where have we seen this before?
By contrast, the Trash Island (where the dogs were expelled to) was just disgusting – although it had a certain beauty to it in the way it was made out to be a society in some way. This is a land ravaged by disaster after disaster, where dogs fight for survival, and it’s obvious in the way the dogs look. They are malnourished, scruffy – and in some cases beaten and injured. If you’ve ever seen a video about animals being mistreated, you’ll no doubt get upset by this. As an animal lover myself, I cried more than once when I saw how sad the dogs looked. However, this was an effective way of having character backstories. You don’t get a lot of characters (aside from maybe Chief) describing their pasts, but the way they look and act gives a good indication. And when they are reunited with their owners, you can go “Oh, that makes sense now!” Just goes to show you don’t need hours of exposition to give a good character past, sometimes a subtle nod here and there can be enough.
Some of the scenes (like in the way the dogs were rounded up) conjured up images of the Holocaust – making it uncomfortable to watch sometimes. If you go into this thinking this is a children’s film – be warned. I remember there were a couple of kids with their father in the row behind me, and they were horrified by the way the dogs were treated.
Thankfully, there is some humour to counter-balance this terror. It’s not “laugh-out-loud” humour as such, it’s more restrained. But with so much horror, even deadpan humour is needed.
The story is broken up a little bit in “sections”, kinda like in a Manga. And often, they will have explanations for scenes, described like in a comic panel. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve read a Manga, but you’ll know what I mean if you have. Interestingly enough, it’s rare that the Japanese dialogue is translated in this film – unless it’s plot specific. Don’t worry if you don’t speak Japanese though, the action makes it easy to understand what’s going on. And we even have an American character in for the Westerners to follow – which is my big problem with this film. Which I’ll get to in the next section.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
The character of Tracy really annoyed me. She’s put across as this strong, “fight for the rights of the dogs!” social justice warrior – but she just came across as really obnoxious. Like when she’s trying to get her point across, she pretty much just stamps her foot to get attention when no one will listen to her – and she even physically assaults a witness and bullies them into giving her info. I’ve heard some people complain about her being a “White Saviour”, but honestly, she was too bratty for me to care about that. I actually didn’t see the need for her to be in there to be honest – why not just have a Japanese character in her place? I don’t mean to get all political and that, but her being in there just seemed like an excuse to – well, have an American in there.
Isle of Dogs is a film that both breaks and warms your heart at the same time. It has beautiful animation, but a dark story that sometimes makes you uncomfortable. Annoying side characters aside, the voice acting is superb and everyone has their own character. I recommend this film – just be warned that if you are an animal lover, some scenes may upset you.
Maybe it’s not the film of the year so far, but it’s a close contender.
FINAL SCORE: 4.5/5