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Non-Review Review: Isle of Dogs

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

Isle of Dogs is a beautiful piece of work, in every sense of the word.

The obvious point of comparison is The Fantastic Mister Fox, Wes Anderson’s previous stop-motion adventure. Isle of Dogs and The Fantastic Mister Fox are certainly of a piece with one another even beyond the wonderful production design, featuring meditative canines engaged in existential struggles. However, Isle of Dogs represents an extension and deepening of the work that Anderson did with The Fantastic Mister Fox.

Isle of Dogs reflects the more daring formal experimentation that made Grand Budapest Hotel such a treat, trusting the audience to accept and even embrace Anderson’s consciously hyperstylised approach to storytelling. In a strictly logical or rational manner, almost every major creative decision in Isle of Dogs seems to have been made to remind the audience that they are watching something constructed and crafted, the film consciously and artfully heightened so as to remind the audience of the remove that exists between them and the film they are watching.

Although Anderson has come to be known for this conscious and playful aesthetic, it is not his greatest accomplishment as a director. The most wonderful and beautiful thing about Isle of Dogs is that the film is so lovingly and carefully crafted that repeatedly drawing the audience’s attention to the artifice of it renders it no less real and no less moving.

Of course, Anderson has always been a very stylised director, his films unfolding several degrees removed from anything approaching the real world. His characters have always seemed exaggerated and cartoonish, even in early works like Bottlerocket or Rushmore. This is not to diminish the depth of feeling or even the emotional complexity of the characters involved in films like The Royal Tenanbaums or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. If anything, it only emphasises Anderson’s balancing act; these characters are at once tangibly real and almost ethereal.

Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of Anderson’s directorial style has been his tendency to frame and shoot these outlandish characters in a manner reminiscent of Kubrick, with particular emphasis on symmetry and one-point perspective. However, while Anderson’s framing and composition are quite close to that of Kubrick, Anderson has never been accused of being cold and remote in the same way that Kubrick has. Part of this undoubtedly down to the fact that characters inhabiting his frames feel so much large and gregarious; they grow to fill these frames.

Reflecting his growing confidence as a director, and perhaps more likely his increasing cachet with major studios, Anderson has only further embraced his stylistic sensibilities in recent films, particularly those following The Fantastic Mister Fox. Were “Andersonian” an adjective that could be applied to the director’s films, it would be fair to suggest that Anderson’s four most recent films have been even more “Andersonian” than the early films that established his aesthetic.

Isle of Dogs is a film that consciously and repeatedly puts itself at a remove from the audience. Most of the human characters in the film speak Japanese, with approximately half the dialogue untranslated – although Anderson is a canny enough director to make it clear what is going on. The film constant switches modes in a manner designed to remind the audience that what they are watching is a film, by forcing the viewer to readjust how they process the information that the film is conveying.

When the film does translate from Japanese, it translates in a variety of different ways; it uses subtitles, technological wizardry, a newscaster voiced by Frances McDormand, compute card print-outs, an exchange student played by Greta Gerwig, and the old device of having the English-speaking protagonists repeat key dialogue for the audience at home. Each of these decisions is a stock narrative convention, the kind necessary to tell a story like this. However, Anderson cycles through them fast enough that audience is constantly reminds of these contrivances.

Other aspects of Isle of Dogs remind audiences that they are watching a film. The animation style shifts repeatedly, with these stop-motion characters portrayed on television and in photos as drawings, and with a prologue rendered in a more classical animation style. Flashbacks are helpfully identified as such by legends that appear on screen, drawing attention to their disruption of the narrative flow. Anderson even borrows visual and musical cues from classic and beloved films, from Citizen Kane to Seven Samurai.

This is very similar to the approach that Anderson adopted with Grand Budapest Hotel, constantly shifting aspect ratios as the film unpacked the set of nesting dolls to get to the core story. Each of these shifts – the subtle adjustment at the margin of the screen, the changed shape of the window into this world – existed to remind the audience that were watching a film, in many ways serving as a direct rebuke to the idea that audiences lose themselves in a film and focus mainly on the story.

Anderson constant nudges his viewers out of that comfort zone by drawing attention to just how manufactured his worlds are. This is reflected in everything from the technical craftsmanship of his films, which rarely aspire towards anything approaching verisimilitude or naturalism, through to the dialogue that his characters exchange. Isle of Dogs is so heightened that it features its central romantic couple bantering like the leads from a forties film noir who just happen to be talking dogs in postapocalyptic Japan. It is all so heightened that the audience can barely see the ground.

It should be noted, of course, that Isle of Dogs looks absolutely beautiful. The production design on the film is astounding, and many of the shots are just stunning. As with The Fantastic Mister Fox, Anderson applies his own stylistic sensibilities to these stop-motion characters, meaning that there are several shots where these models seem almost flattened into two-dimensions and are shot in silhouette. There is an incredible amount of craft in Isle of Dogs, and wonderful little details – from flowers blowing in the wind to ticks crawling on fur.

However, while Anderson is perhaps most recognisable for this aesthetic, his key strength has been in never allowing his characters or their humanity to get lost in all of this self-aware artifice. Anderson repeatedly reminds the audience that his characters inhabit worlds make of plywood and cartoons, but then convinces the viewers to care about them anyway. There is a remarkable sense of empathy in that, in the idea that even characters inhabiting a live action or stop motion cartoon can still express the full range of their humanity.

None of this is abstract when it comes to Isle of Dogs. The central premise of Isle of Dogs is that canines are generally fantastic; the title is almost phonetically indistinguishable from the sentiment “I love dogs.” (The movie is somewhat less enthusiastic about cats.) The movie even bookends itself with a haiku that dares to ask, “Whatever happened to man’s best friend?” There is something incredibly emotional and evocative in the basic promise of Isle of Dogs, the tale of a little boy who risks life and limb to be reunited with his beloved pet.

Why do we love dogs? It’s a tough question to answer, and many people will offer many alternative theories. Maybe it is because they are loyal and obedient, their love unquestioning and their devotion total. Isle of Dogs unironically captures this sense of spiritual connection between owner and animal, in the journeys shared by its central characters. A little boy who crosses an ocean to find his best friend, a pack of dogs who shepherd that boy across a dangerous landscape.

However, maybe people love dogs because they see some humanity reflected back at them – individuality and identity that is hard to objectively or quantifiable measure, but to which any dog lover can attest. Society frowns on people who talk to themselves, but very few dog owners can honestly say that they’ve never spoken to a pet as if that pet could understand them; not because these owners actually think that their beloved pets can speak the language, but because they recognise some strange ineffable humanity in what is biologically and objectively speaking just a canine.

Isle of Dogs is built around this central conflict between what dog owners understand of the biology of canines and the actual experiences that they have shared. The film’s artifice becomes a wry commentary on this complicated dynamic. Much like dog owners know that their pet is not capable of higher reason, the audience is constantly reminded that they are watching stop motion approximations of creatures not capable of higher reasons. And none of that really matters, because the emotions underpinning this relationship are genuine.

Isle of Dogs imbues its central canines with personality and warmth, giving each a unique identity and perspective. It narratives the lives of these creatures in a way that any loving dog owner will have done. Isle of Dogs repeatedly offers close-ups of eyes (whether human or canine) as they tear up in response to some horror or realisation. As arch and as wry as Anderson can be, the emotions underpinning his script are genuine. This is perhaps best illustrated towards the climax of the film, in a short monologue delivered by a dog played by Harvey Keitel.

Isle of Dogs imagines that canines are really not so different from anybody else, sharing the same anxieties and uncertainties as the human beings with which they have bonded. “I bite,” warns Chief repeatedly over the course of the film. However, by the end of the film, he has become more contemplative, musing, “Why do I bite?” This notion is as absurd as any plot point in a film that involves a conspiracy stretching back to the dawn of Japanese society masterminded by a cult of cat-lovers. However, it also underscores an understanding of why people love dogs so much.

There is something whimsical and idealistic in the idea that people are capable of recognising the humanity in even stop motion figurines approximating the form of dogs populating a world that was clearly built in miniature. Anderson finds something real at the heart of this constructed world. Isle of Dogs is a powerful and emotional ode to man’s best friend.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 4

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