Isle Of Dogs


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Isle Of Dogs will open the Berlinale
"Go in as a fan of Anderson's work and you will not be disappointed. Go in as a fan of film and you will likely be delighted." | Photo: 20th Century Fox

There are five dogs. A pack, all alphas. A democracy, apparently. Chief, Rex, Boss, Duke, and King. No accidents, those names. No accidents at all - even the crashes of junior turboprops are orchestrated to a certain fanatical precision. Wes Anderson as a director displays a focus on craft and an ability to elicit from astonishing casts a very specific blend of the winsome and exact.

It does a disservice to the quality of Isle Of Dogs to say that this, his ninth feature, is more of the same. There's almost certainly a doctoral thesis on his use of yellow, nevermind the extent to which metatextual entities like a bar that seems to reference one of Damien Hirst's Pharmacy installations or Ken Watanabe voicing a character called Ben Watanabe inform Anderson's work.

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Jay Clarke is credited as "lead (and sole) storyboard artist", and beyond doing the same for The Grand Budapest Hotel he also did the same for the Shaun The Sheep Movie. He's mentioned for two reasons: one, to crowbar in mention of another piece of charming stop motion, and two, because the credits themselves are part of the ambition and execution of something that walks a very particular line - there are moments where vehicles are carried by overhead cables, where we follow those moving along narrow walkways, but it's Anderson (writing in company, directing) who is walking his usual tight-rope.

This is a movie where Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Bob Balaban voice those five dogs, like a vocal cheeseboard, smooth, rich, differently unguent: indulgent. This is Anderson writ at once small and large, from explosions and dust clouds to lush Taiko drumming to rhythms of dialogue (Courtney B Vance narration too) like "...beheaded the head of the head..." to tiny chocolate milk-bottles to Yoko Ono playing someone called Yoko Ono to... to... to...

Of course Bill Murray contributes, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman collaborate, Alexandre Desplat composes. Of course the credits (as mentioned above) form part of the vision, the fact that these stop-motion puppets (and film within a film and play within a play and one of those with kuroko (the black-clad stagehands of Kabuki, here deployed as delightfully metatextually as in, say, Kaiju Bunraku)) are when represented on the puppet televisions rendered (un-rendered!) in hand-drawn animation, or so those exquisite credits tell us, and they are relatively thorough. There are chapters and prologues and flash-backs and title cards, and an explanation of the structure of the film and a firm laying out of the rules of understanding - a big one - dogs speak English. Bryan Cranston and Edward Norton and Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum and Bob Balaban all cream and timbre like a butterscotch sundae in a turned wooden bowl - perfect enveloping craft, but they are on a quest, a borrowed quest - one sparked by Koyu Rankin's Atari, a tiny pilot in a plane that's not quite a toy.

There are only so many movies where Tilda Swinton voices a dog. There are only so many movies that will strand a hero in an aluminium amphitheatre, will dare to embrace a formalism audaciously enough that the screen will slide left a bit to get a different bit of a fight in frame, one where everything disappears in a rumble of something that's probably not cotton-wool but is just meant to convey the expectation of dust. There's road-runner physics and visible men and oscillating speaker cones and split-screens and a forensic multi-lingualaty that reflects the globe-spanning production that had teams in the US and France and Poland and Altrincham. You won't see many films that feature an amphibious assault by dog-catchers, a sumo bout, a typographical coincidence, a revelation predicated upon a travel toiletry kit, but it's not unexpected that such a variety would occur in a film by Mr Anderson, though the breadth and scope and detail of it surprises and delights.

The cast are mostly male, the female characters (including Scarlett Johanssen and Greta Gerwig as Nutmeg and Tracy, intermittently bipedal and canine, consistently bipedal and from Ohio respectively) are mostly love interests, the story unfolds exactingly with no small degree of structural complexity (both of plot and set), and throughout Anderson's vision immerses.

It's almost a waste to say more, because the act of watching the unfolding without anything more than the loosest of expectations is part of the fun. Go in as a fan of Anderson's work and you will not be disappointed. Go in as a fan of film and you will likely be delighted. If Anderson's particular cocktail of the twee and the arch, the exacting and the louche, his commitment to film-making technique and the people he recruits to perform their actorly craft is not for you, then Isle of Dogs will not be. From the homophonous declaration of canine fealty hidden in the title to the haiku that work as well as the one in Wayne's World this, his ninth feature, is another outburst of talent on a creative trajectory whose fuse was lit all the way back at Bottle Rocket. If you are definitely not a fan then you'd be barking up the wrong tree, but dear reader, friend of mine, for the Anderson-minded and their acquintances it's a further demonstration of artistic pedigree, chum.

Reviewed on: 21 Feb 2018
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Isle Of Dogs packshot
In a future world where dogs have been exiled to the giant rubbish dumps of Trash Island, a Japanese boy sets out alone in search of his beloved pet.

Director: Wes Anderson

Writer: Wes Anderson

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Liev Schreiber

Year: 2018

Runtime: 101 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US, Germany


Glasgow 2018
BIFF 2018

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