March 19, 2018

CINEMA | Wes Anderson Scraps 'Isle of Dogs' Together

"I've seen cats with more balls than you dogs."
Kunichi Nomura Bryan Wes Anderson | Isles of Dogs

Tune into Episode 165 of the Vertical Viewing Podcast (available on iTunes) where I review Isle of Dogs (say it slowly) and talk a little Ready Player One with regular co-host Scott Willson and special guest Thor Diakow from CityTV and Breakfast Television. (48min)

Meticulous filmmaker Wes Anderson makes his latest stop-motion animated film, the futuristic Japanese dog adventure Isle of Dogs, such an expressively scruffy story commenting on the perils of our very own trash world. Anderson uses his trademark fantastical tropes to expressively visualize a stealth political message of unity against tyranny wrapped in an idealized Japanese culture.

Starring the voices of Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Bob Balaban as a pack of wild dogs afflicted with "dog flu" and banned to Trash Island, we follow them and twelve-year-old Atari Kobayashi (voiced by Vancouver actor Koyu Rankin). The curiously named Artari crash lands a small plane in search of his beloved bodyguard dog Spots (Liev Schreiber) while quickly hatching a rescue mission to save dog-kind against his evil uncle, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) of the fictional Megasaki City and his anti-dog, pro-cat conspiracy.

For the most part, Anderson's use of Japanese culture is lovingly appropriated although through American perceptions. Native Japanese spoken by actual Japanese voice actors (without subtitles but some in-story translation) and imagery presented in precise detail but there is a sense of Orientalism or otherness. This is very much Anderson's version of a remixed Japan with some interesting parallels to nuclear fallout, internment camps, and other historical allusions.

Aside from a few characters who clearly evoke stereotypically ugly Oriental facial features and Greta Gerwig's English-speaking foreign exchange student character (think white saviour), most of the Japanese iconography and personifications are somewhat logically executed within the context of the brisk, surrealist story.

Bryan Cranston Edward Norton Bill Murray Jeff Goldblum Wes Anderson | Isles of Dogs

Anderson's manifestation of corruption in the character of Kobayashi is a larger than life encapsulation of authoritarian rule in the form of a cartoon villain. How he visualizes the lack of morality in his adult characters through xenophobic politics compared to the idealism of children and animals is tragic in its timeliness.

Possibly Anderson's most beautiful and imaginative film yet, the framing and composition by Fantastic Mr. Fox cinematographer Tristan Oliver shines the detailed imagery and builds a complete world fantastically. How dogs are repurposed as refugees cast away to their own debilitating warzone as a result of fearmongering authoritarian rule is powerful yet still lightly told as children's entertainment.

In an interesting twist of cinematic language, all of the Japanese characters speak Japanese sometimes translated by Frances McDormand acting as in-story editorial interpreter in a news style device that cleverly gets around standard subtitles and conventions where everyone speaks English for no reason. The rest of the film is narrated by Courtney B. Vance as another inventive bridge of language and culture without alienating international audiences.

Japan's role in the film is completely superfluous and unnecessary, especially considering the exclusively white voice cast of Hollywood actors for the main dog characters, but it provides a means for Anderson to highlight his love for the cinema of Kurosawa, Ozu, and Miyazaki. His adoration is infectious and intoxicating as he tries to justify the Japanese appropriation through his sheer love of its form.

Anderson manages to pack so much interesting demagogue political ideology wrapped in canine imagery and kid fun. The stunning stop-motion animation and colourful voice acting combined with his trademark design aesthetics make the film pop with imagination. He takes the problematic nature of cross-cultural ideas and dogs as reappropriated human stand-ins to make the best possible cinematic allegory into a wondrous and entertaining adventure.

Isle of Dogs opens in Vancouver on March 28th.

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