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Isle Of Dogs (2018)

The Japanese archipelago, twenty years in the future. Following an outbreak of Dog Flu, the mayor of Megasaki City signs a decree that the entire canine population be exiled to Trash Island.12-year-old Atari,  the mayor's ward,  escapes to the island to rescue his beloved pet Spots. There he meets a wandering gang of dogs (including a former stray named Chief, voiced by Bryan Cranston) who decide to help him find his furry friend.

Isle Of Dogs is director Wes Anderson's eagerly anticipated return to stop-motion animation, following the success of Fantastic Mr Fox. Anderson's singular style proved to be a natural fit for the medium, and there's a not insignificant number of his fans who see it as his best film, full stop.

For his second foray into stop-motion, much of the aesthetic from Mr Fox is carried over. The slightly scrappy look to the animal puppets, giving it a retro, slightly home-made feel remains firmly in place here. The movement in their fur (known in the industry as 'boiling') gives it an authenticity that separates it from the glossier end of stop-motion that could often be mistaken for CGI.

Anderson brought back much of the team from his earlier film, assembling many of the world's foremost stop-motion artists in London. This is also a significant step-up (on a technical level), with more ambitious sets, character models and sequences than any seen in the earlier film. Visually, the film is nothing short of stunning.

Every frame is crafted with a meticulous eye to detail, every sequence a work of art on its own. Again Anderson's style is carried over beautifully from his live-action films. The distinctive composition of his shots means that you only need to look at a shot to know that this is every inch an Anderson film.

Despite the supposed future setting, there's a distinct retro charm to the setting too. Take for example the TV sets, which seem to have come from the 60's, rather than the high-definition flatscreens of today. In an enjoyable touch, 2D animation is used to show anything displayed on the screen. Contrast this with futuristic touches such as robots and futuristic cityscapes and it's easy to see why the combination of the old and new would make Japan such an appealing location to Anderson.

Like Mr Fox, it never really feels like this movie is made primarily with kids in mind. There are darker moments, and occasional violence -enough to earn it a PG in the UK, and a PG-13 in the US. Honestly, it's easy to imagine younger audiences being bored by it but it will depend very much on the child. It's not specifically adult animation as such, but neither does it ever feel like a "family film".

It's not just the visuals that display the director's unmistakable fingerprints. The canine leads (no pun intended) speak in the way that only characters in Wes Anderson movies do, and behave in ways that only his characters would. If you are at all experienced with his films, you'll already know if you find this charming or insufferable. And be sure that Isle Of Dogs is unlikely to change your mind either way.

The main dogs are voiced by (largely) American actors. Anderson veterans such as Jeff Goldblum, Ed Norton, Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman are joined by newcomers such as Cranston and Scarlett Johanson, all putting in fine performances.

Beyond their voice performances, much of the credit for how well the dogs are brought to life must go to the animators. Although undoubtedly cute, they're also rough around the edges. Their slightly scrappy personalities fit the aesthetic to a T. These are dogs who truly behave like animals, fighting and biting and walking on all-fours. There's a subtlety to the animated acting that is rarely seen in US feature animation. They're not your typical talking cartoon animals (Zootopia this most certainly is not)- but they are Good Dogs.

The portrayal of the human characters is another matter. The human characters, as explained by a title card, are depicted speaking in their native tongue. They are played mainly by Japanese actors, speaking mainly Japanese. When the plot requires we understand exactly what they are saying, it is translated by subtitles or occasionally via an audio interpreter, but for the most part, it is left untranslated. This appears to be designed to create a distinction between humans and the dogs. Fantastic Mr Fox did a similar thing by casting British actors as the humans and Americans in the animal roles. Here, however, it can't help but create an added barrier between the English-speaking viewers and the human characters, something that could have been easily remedied with more consistent use of subtitles. In the case of Atari, it's not such an issue, with the film managing to create a believable bond between him and the initially reluctant Chief. It's a fun subversion of the boy and his dog trope.

Much has been written of the film's depiction of Japan and Japanese people and culture. Several people have found it to be offensive, accusing it of anything from cultural appropriation and insensitivity to outright racism. You can read some excellent articles from people more qualified to speak on such issues such as Justin Chang and Angie Han. I can only speak to my own personal experience with the film.

And honestly? Although I found an awful lot to love about the film, there were certainly some elements that did give me pause. Some of the (human) characterisations definitely skirt perilously close to stereotypes and caricature. The fact that it takes the one American, English speaking human character (voiced by Greta Gerwig) to spur the largely meek Japanese characters to action is also less than ideal.

It can be argued that the depiction of Japanese culture looks like an outsider's (or tourist's) view, featuring every cliche from sumo wrestlers to sushi, sailor uniforms and geisha. Despite Anderson's declaration of influence from Japanese film-makers both live-action and animated, such as Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki, did it ultimately need to be set in Japan? Perhaps not, yet while it is ultimately little more than window dressing, it unquestionably makes for beautiful sequences. Touches such as the taiko drumming from the opening, and artwork based on woodblock prints (look out for a beautiful nod to Hokusai's iconic Great Wave). It's worth noting too that Japanese native Kunichi Nomura (who voiced Mayor Kobayashi) is also credited as a writer on the film, as well as a consultant casting director. This does at least go some way counter the view that this is entirely a gaijin's view of Japan.

So it's not that they haven't tried to make it respectful, at least. It's just that it's up for debate just how well they actually did. Your mileage may very much vary here. You may find this all to be a fuss over nothing, or you may find the issues are enough to spoil your enjoyment of the film entirely. Or you may fall somewhere in between.

The film's flaws aren't limited to cultural concerns either. Anderson's filmography is also not known for having strong women characters- and this film doesn't break that mould. The character of Oracle (voiced by Tilda Swinton) is perhaps the only female character here that isn't defined by her relationship to a man- and she's not even human. And while it does occasionally provide some stark imagery, the fact is that Trash Island is not the most visually interesting of locations. None of these issues was enough to spoil my enjoyment of the film. However, I totally understand anyone who feels differently.

Overall though, despite its flaws, Isle Of Dogs is still very much an entertaining watch. It's a film that any animation fan, dog person, or Wes Anderson completist will find hard to resist- even if it's not quite as Fantastic as Mr Fox.

FROM Fox Searchlight
1hr 41m [Movie]

IN A NUTSHELL:  Anderson's sophomore stop-motion feature is a little mangey in places but undoubtedly entertaining and exquisitely crafted.