Isle of Dogs

Cast: (voiced by) Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Kunichi Nomura, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Harvey Keitel, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Akira Ito, Akira Takayama, F. Murray Abraham, Yojiro Noda, Mari Natsuki, Yoko Ono, Frank Wood

Director: Wes Anderson

Writer: Wes Anderson


When someone says they’re making an animated movie about dogs, this isn’t the kind of movie you expect them to make. But then, there isn’t really anybody out there who makes movies quite like Wes Anderson. His second foray into feature-length animation after Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs takes us far away from the childishly delightful All Dogs Go to Heaven to a morbid fable with a twisted sense of humour and a lot of bite. There is grisly imagery throughout the film from a dog getting its ear bitten off to a human character getting a bolt stuck in his head to a school of squirming fish getting chopped up to make sushi, all making for a PG film where the PG actually means something. Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean this movie isn’t for kids. Those who can handle it will find by the end that Isle of Dogs is a surprisingly soft-hearted and even endearing movie.

The movie is set in a post-apocalyptic, futuristic Japan where an outbreak of a canine virus in the city of Megasaki leads the autocratic mayor Kobayashi to sign a decree banishing all dogs to Trash Island. The first dog to be exiled is his own orphaned nephew’s dependable dog Spots. The 12-year-old Atari, bereft for having lost his best friend, ventures to Trash Island to search for him. There he crosses paths with “a pack of scary, indestructible alpha dogs”. There’s Rex, a gutsy house dog desperate to return to his master; Duke, a gossipy hound; King, the former star of a commercial for dog food; and Boss, the mascot for a high school Baseball team. Leading them, as far as any alpha dog can lead a pack of alpha dogs, is Chief, a vicious tramp who is deeply mistrustful when it comes to humans. When the pack agrees to help Atari in his search (they take a vote on it, just like they do when faced with pretty much anything), Chief only agrees to join them at the insistence of purebred show dog Nutmeg.

One of the things that makes Isle of Dogs compelling to watch is that the story can be pretty much whatever you want it to be. If you want to look at it as an allegory for disenfranchisement where the unfortunate mutts are stand-ins for those who live in the margins of our society (or even for animals if you want to look at it in more of an animal rights kind of way), it works. If you want to watch it as the simple tale of a boy and his dog embarking on a quest together and forming an affectionate bond that transcends species and language, that also works. There is much that the film leaves open for the viewer to interpret however they see fit. While all the canine barks, growls, and howls are delivered in English, the human Japanese dialogue is left largely untranslated save the occasional interpretations of a Frances McDormand character. The intention here is for the viewer to infer the meaning through the context and emotion of the moment, though some have criticised this approach, saying that it serves to cast the Japanese characters (as opposed to all human characters) as villainous ‘others’. Considering that one of the more heroic human characters is Tracy, an American white girl voiced by Greta Gerwig who speaks English, I can understand why this route has proven problematic (although, in light of how her ultimate confrontation with Kobayshi actually turns out, I don’t agree with the notion that she is a white saviour).

What was quite clear to me is that Anderson is quite enamoured with Japanese culture and desperately wanted to convey some of its aesthetics to an American and European audience. It follows a recent tradition in children’s animation with such films as Moana, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Coco of portraying stories from non-Western cultures with histories, traditions, and values that differ from our own (with admittedly varying degrees of success). As a Brit who has never even set foot in Japan, I am far from qualified to judge whether or not Anderson’s depiction of Japan is accurate or perceptive. It seems to me however that there is a strong effort being made by Anderson to engage with Japan’s culture and to try and find that fine line between appropriation and appreciation. Kunichi Nomura, the voice of Kobayashi, shares a writing credit, the cast features a great range of Japanese names from Ken Watanabe to Yoko Ono (of all people!), and there is no shortage of identifiably Japanese imagery to point at such as taiko drums, sumo wrestlers, sushi, a mushroom cloud explosion and various nods to Akira Kurosawa. Whether what we see is simply a white Westerner’s distortion of Japan is a question I will have to leave to others, but I do believe that in order for progress to be made, honest, well-meaning efforts do have to be attempted even if there are some mistakes along the way.

As far as the visual aesthetics go, I must say that I was blown away. Anderson has distinguished himself as a terrific visual director time and time again with his love of vibrant colours and symmetry and his idiosyncratic attention to detail and his style is put on full display coupled with the splendid use of stop-motion animation. The movie has a scratchy texture that contrasts with the technical precision of his compositions and allows the setting of Trash Island and the dogs that inhabit it to feel harsh and unrefined while still also strangely elegant. The landscapes of mountains and shelters made up of multi-coloured refuse are utterly breathtaking. The movie puts particular care into the movements and mannerisms of the dogs themselves, going so far as to show their fur shuddering in the breeze, and it uses certain flourishes that enable them to feel truly active such as animating the fight scenes to look like a swirling dust cloud with random limbs sticking out like something from a children’s comic book. It’s that level of detail that enables the film to feel as remarkably physical as stop-motion animated films are uniquely able to feel.

As many people have noticed, the title is a homonym for ‘I love dogs’ and it’s essentially a promise that this movie will offer something of a love letter to the canines of the world and will appeal to all the dog lovers out there. As a lifelong dog lover myself, I think the movie delivers on that promise in spades. Not only are these mutts fun and interesting characters in their own right, but the movie is able to find much humour and heart in their canine behaviour and personality. There’s a good example of dog logic used in an exchange between Chief and Nutmeg where he asks why he should bother to help Atari and she answers, ‘because he’s a twelve year old boy, dogs love those’. The movie is a celebration of the bond that humans and dogs share and the friendship that eventually forms between Atari and Chief is as moving as it is unlikely. The film is not without it’s problems, many of them to do with the grey area between cultural appropriation and appreciation that the movie inhabits, but there is more than enough humour, style and charm to make Isle of Dogs an enjoyable watch.

★★★★

The Jungle Book

Cast: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken

Director: Jon Favreau

Writer: Justin Marks


Of all the Disney movies to be treated to a live-action remake, The Jungle Book is perhaps the most beloved of all. It boasts of unforgettable characters, enjoyable music and a timeless charm, traits which leave little room for improvement. Although I can understand why Disney might want to update some of these tales and introduce them to a new audience, I so far haven’t been sold by any of their attempts. On one end of the spectrum is Cinderella which contains some aspects that were better than the original but also just as many that were worse. On the other end was Alice in Wonderland which completely and fundamentally misunderstood what it was that made the original cartoon (and the books for that matter) good in the first place. The Jungle Book has posed a curious dilemma for me because while there are very few aspects of the film that I’ve found to be worse than the original, there are just as few that I’ve found to be better. I enjoyed the film, there’s no question about that. The trouble is that I’m not sure whether this film should actually exist.

Like the 1967 cartoon The Jungle Book tells the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a “man cub”. As an infant Mowgli was found alone in the jungle by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and was taken to the wolf pack led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) where he was raised by Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). Years later Mowgli is discovered by Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a ferocious tiger with a bitter hatred of men, who swears he will kill the boy. Mowgli agrees to leave for the sake of the pack and runs away with Bagheera. The two are separated when Shere Khan makes his attack, leaving Mowgli stranded in the middle of the jungle. After an encounter with Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), an enormous python with hypnotic powers, Mowgli falls into the company of the bear Baloo (Bill Murray). The two form a friendship as Mowgli agrees to help him make preparations for the winter. Mowgli however remains in great danger as Shere Khan relentlessly continues the hunt for him.

Although the same characters, songs and basic plot as the original cartoon are all present in this movie, it should be noted that it is by no means an exact copy. The Jungle Book offers a slightly different take on the story by drawing inspiration from Rudyard Kipling’s original works. Thus the film includes such additions as the Law of the Jungle, details of Mowgli’s backstory and the red flower. There is certainly a degree of weight and significance to the characters’ actions that isn’t present in its predecessor but it doesn’t always work to the film’s advantage. Shere Khan for example is an attempt by the film to combine his literary counterpart, a manipulative brute who wants to rule the jungle, with that of the cartoon, a charming but menacing beast who simply does as he pleases, and the result is a confused character with an inconsistent motivation. I was never sure whether Shere Khan’s ultimate plan was to assert his dominance in the jungle or to simply kill Mowgli. In either case the plan he concocts just doesn’t make sense to me.

I think the confusion with Shere Khan is symptomatic of a certain disharmony in terms of story and tone. The original books, on one hand, are serious in their approach as they tell tightly-structured stories with clear morals while the Disney cartoon, in contrast, is much more light-hearted and is more interested in simply portraying comedic highlights and character interactions than in focusing on its narrative. Both of these stories had clear ideas of what they were. It seems to me this film wants to be the best of both worlds: an enjoyable, daring and adventurous family movie with a serious story complete with comedy, music and darkness. While I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say that the film fails to blend these two different styles together, there were still moments when I felt it struggled. For example in the scene where Mowgli meets King Louie (played magnificently by Christopher Walken), the character comes across as brutally intimidating and for a moment I was afraid for the little boy. The tone in that scene was then shattered when Louie suddenly burst out with ‘I Wanna Be Like You’, a song that has no business being sung by a ruthless, terrifying giant.

However I’m getting too caught up in the negatives and want to talk about the positives, of which there are a lot. For one thing The Jungle Book could very well be the most visually stunning film of the year with its breathtaking landscapes and astonishingly lifelike animals. The animals may not have the advantage of being as expressive as those in the cartoon but that’s when the voice acting comes in. Whatever my issues with Shere Khan I definitely cannot dispute the menacing charm in Elba’s voice. Murray is also perfectly cast as the lovable Baloo and provides the film with plenty of heart and laughs. The bond he forms with Mowgli is a truly affectionate one and when they sang ‘The Bare Necessities’ together I was grinning from ear to ear. Mowgli himself is played splendidly by newcomer Neel Stehi whose performance is especially praiseworthy considering that he was the only living breathing person actually in front of the camera. That the jungle and the animals in it were able to come to life in this movie is a remarkable achievement in both visual effects and direction.

The one issue that continues to nag at me however is that, as much as I enjoyed this movie, the visuals were the only aspect that I found to be substantially better than the cartoon while the characterisation of Shere Khan was the only part that I found to be worse. The rest of the film, while certainly different in terms of content, still felt more or less the same in terms of the impression it left on me despite its attempts to distinguish itself. The film draws so heavily from the cartoon that I don’t think it’s possible to assess it in isolation and, as enjoyable as this movie could be, there were moments when I felt my enjoyment was inspired more by my nostalgia than by the movie itself. And yet, for children who may not have grown up with the cartoon the way I have, I can absolutely imagine their imaginations being awestruck by the visual spectacle and their hearts being captured by the delightful characters. I’ve tried for so long to reconcile my feelings for this film that I’m not sure I could ever choose a star rating that can truly encompass them. However, in the words of the great Roger Ebert, “your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you”. On that basis I have to give The Jungle Book credit for the enjoyment that I got from watching it, however ambivalently.

★★★★