By: Trevor Chartrand
Director Wes Anderson is at it again with another quirky stop-motion animated feature, his second foray into the genre since 2009’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox. In Isle of Dogs, Anderson’s gone above and beyond to create a clever, stylized, and memorable motion picture.
The film is set in a dystopian Japan 40 years from now, during a time when corrupt city officials outlaw all dogs to a trash island to protect themselves from the society-threatening virus: ‘dog flu.’ While scientists desperately seek an antidote, more and more family pets are exiled with the garbage. Missing his personal best friend and bodyguard, the mayor’s nephew steals a plane in hopes of reaching the island and finding his dog, Spots. He’s joined by a pack of five mangy dogs who help him on his journey.
Like some video games, this film has a sort of tutorial level that actually teaches the viewer how to watch the film – especially with regards to its handling of language. Isle of Dogs deals with translation in a unique and creative way. Since the film is set in Japan, all the human characters speak Japanese, as they should. It’s not dumbed-down for a younger audience by having the Japanese characters speak English for simplicity’s sake. The film gets around language barriers by moving through a variety of translation techniques including a translator for television broadcasts, sporadic subtitles, visual cues, tone of voice and body language. Many scenes cycle from one translation method to the next completely seamlessly.
Then plenty of sequences don’t even bother with an English translation, which is a testament to Isle of Dog’s visual storytelling, since you never miss a beat. It worked for me, but I can’t decide if a child would be able to keep up with these ever-shifting techniques. Cycling between hearing the words, reading the subtitles and picking up animation cues may be overwhelming for the smaller ones. But then again, maybe I’m not giving kids enough credit.
We do hear English voices from the American cast, with all the dogs in the film speaking English fluently. The vocal performances are consistently played in a matter-of-fact tone, to the point where everyone seems a little too calm for such an over-the-top world. The juxtaposition creates a lot of comedic opportunities, of course, with the dogs’ dialogue sounding very dry and observational, despite the chaos around them.
And where to begin with the rest of the cast?! I almost hesitate to single anyone out because the performances in this ensemble are all really strong. Between Brian Cranston’s angry stray Chief and Edward Norton’s lovable housedog Rex, the pets all have so much charisma. Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton are great in their supporting roles, and even Yoko Ono has a part to play! On the human side of things, Greta Gerwig plays a punk-rebel teen to great effect. But the most endearing and emotionally-charged performance comes from the youngest cast member – Koyu Rankin as Atari, the warm-hearted, but tough, young boy desperately seeking out his missing dog.
The animation style in Isle of Dogs is fun and detailed, highly inspired by Japanese culture and architecture. As with the variation in translation styles, there are also different animation techniques used throughout the film. Security cameras, for example, appear in sepia tone, animated with a traditional two-dimensional style rather than stop motion. The film keeps you guessing constantly in terms of visual technique, making for an exciting journey.
The final moments of Isle of Dogs leave something to be desired unfortunately, where everything comes together a little too abruptly. It may be that I was enjoying the film so much that I didn’t want it to end, but everything was neatly and efficiently wrapped up for a conclusion that felt sudden – almost too convenient and easy. A happy ending may make sense for a children’s film, but with some of the content in this movie, a darker route may have been justified.
While Wes Anderson can sometimes go overboard with forced quirkiness in live action films, his comedic style and sensibilities are practically made for animation. Isle of Dogs is a great mix of the wonderfully weird and dark reality. Parents be advised, you may want to keep the really young ones away (under ten?) from this one; but it’s a must-see for anyone else.
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Trevor Chartrand: @OhHaiTrebor