Sharp reviews: Isle of Dogs

The world of Isle of Dogs is ruled by cat lovers which, as you would imagine, is incredibly inconvenient for all the dutiful dogs who make Megasaki City their home. Another problem is the dog flu, which, if the frightening feline friends are to be believed, has infected every dog in this dangerous, dystopian world. So, to prevent this flu from jumping from canine to human, all dogs are caged, moved to Trash Island, and set loose – transforming Trash Island into an isle of dogs.

That’s the set up for the movie. The actual plot follows a pack of dogs as they help Atari, a young boy and ward of the corrupt mayor voiced by Koyu Rankin, search for his dog (and eternal best friend) Spots. Meanwhile, a conspiracy involving assassinated scientists and the cure for the dog flu unravels in the city. Among Isle of Dogs’ strengths is this wholly charming premise; the whole story feels like a fairy tale, complete with talking animals, delightful mythic caricatures and the sometimes shocking, always surprising bits of bloody violence.

Writer and director Wes Anderson is known for his visually precise, aesthetically unique filmography, and Isle of Dogs fits perfectly into his weird and wonderful canon. In fact, he might be the only director with both the delightfully strange sensibility and the Hollywood clout to get a movie like this made. Aren’t we fortunate to live in a world with him?

Our protagonist, Chief, voiced by the endlessly impressive Bryan Cranston, serves as the emotional centre of the movie. A stray in the city, Chief feels right at home on the anarchistic isle, and greets the human Atari with nothing but apprehension and aggression. However, he is only one dog in a pack of several self-declared alphas, aggressive leader dogs who settle everything with a vote. And vote they do, deciding to set out and help Atari find his dog. The voice cast is completely star-studded, including Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Billy Murray, Greta Gerwig, Scarlett Johansson, and even a brief cameo from Yoko Ono.

Isle of Dogs is honestly great; it’s fun throughout, with frequently beautiful animation and impressive visual storytelling. As with most Wes Anderson stories, the narrative is simple. In this case simplicity means purity, as the story could have easily been bogged down by over-complication. It’s easy to want to read this movie as an allegory for the Holocaust, or some similar mass persecution. My problem is that, well, people aren’t dogs, and in the film this difference is presented as fundamental. Dogs and humans cannot speak in this movie, full stop. Narratively, this creates creative moments which work well. If taken as allegory, however, it would suggest a power dynamic between the humans (read: people in power) and the dogs (read: the persecuted). While I won’t spoil it here, the ending would posit obedience to an arbitrary hierarchy to be the ideal life for the persecuted parties.

Luckily, the movie distances itself so far from reality, spending too much time on its own mythos, that any attempt to ascribe a consistent meaning falls apart. Besides, the movie doesn’t need to reach for real world events to be profound; there’s a smattering of cruelty mixed in with the fantastical, encouraging you to work to find the underlying universal humanity and compassion. It’s a movie about friendship and kindness and respect for life.  It’s pure and simple, delightful and beautiful, a movie worth watching.

I saw Isle of Dogs at a screening put on by Mount Allison’s English Society. Check them out on Facebook for other events and much more.

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