Animation has a terrible burden to bear. What other art form is expected by so many to be juvenile, to be cheery, to be so damn normal and much of the time so damn American? Imagine if the same was expected of a painter, a writer, anyone who gathers images with a camera to tell a story? And yet, of all the art forms, animation has the potential to be the freest.
Anything that can be drawn, painted and imagined can now have life and movement – infinite possibilities within reach, one frame at a time. It always did, even before computers were made part of the toolset, with only patience, time and skill to hold us back. This is old news to those of us who’ve encountered such adventures, whether accidentally on late night arts programs, or as borrowed by adverts and pop promos, or at film festivals, or (more and more likely) discovered on-line. Yes, there are other worlds than these, and plenty of them. But in a feature, in your local multiplex?
So expect Isle Of Dogs to cause a storm of confusion. It’s animation. It’s got doggos (yay!). It’s got talking hero doggos (Yay! Let’s bring the kids). It’s got doggos with fleas and ticks and flu one had an ear missing (Yay – uh..). It’s got human heroes but most of them don’t speak English (oh, I don’t like subtitles) but don’t worry there’s no subtitles (wait – what) and it’s all Japanese but it’s not *real* Japanese but I don’t know if it’s the future or it’s a cliché and omg IT’S SO WEIRD –
Don’t read the comments.
Isle of Dogs IS weird. It’s Wes Anderson directing, so it’s already going to be stylised and recognisable and not quite like anything else. It’s stop-motion animation, and that’s a rarity in mainstream features, for a start. And then there are layers of one-offness and anti-Hollywood rule breaking, taking it several steps beyond the one-offness of his previous animated feature, The Fabulous Mr Fox. The story refuses to hit those plot points in the required manner, but does follow certain Wes Anderson kind of pattern, where the building of relationships is as important as action, it flows like a Manga book, proper Manga, a celebration, not the stylised Western version, it looks so good.
Isle of Dogs is set in a mythical, alternate-universe region of Japan, for starters. It’s NOT a ‘future’ Japan, and certainly not a present one, but retro-futurist one, reminiscent in some ways of high-concept painter Simon Stalenhag’s retro/ alt futurist Scandinavian landscapes, or even the super-English mythologies of Harry Potter. It’s a lovingly constructed universe, borrowing life and depth and vitality from an array of Japanese cultural tropes to create this strange, heightened, immersing and very pleasing world. Within this parallel universe, there’s room for dark and disturbing things to happen – mainly to dogs. In this world, dogs and cats are traditional enemies, and human powers that be decide to exile all dogs to an offshore rubbish dump. Dogs get injured, dogs get sick, starve, and quite a few more grim things that absolutely positively must not be allowed in an animated feature because, you know, think of the children. And yet – it’s funny. It’s impossible not to laugh, over and over again at the comic timing, at the dogs’ expressions, at the hero kids’ expression. There’s a pretty spectacular cast of voice actors, but no doubt you’ll hear all about them in reviews and interviews, and they do a great job. But that’s only half the performance.
The animation. Let’s make this very clear: stop-motion simply does not get any better than the performances on Isle of Dogs. Stop-motion animation, just to remind us, happens when you built a miniature set, and models that you can move in tiny increments, and make that model act and breath and run by moving it, just a little bit, and taking a shot, and doing that again until the thing comes alive and/or you go crazy. The animation throughout Isle of Dogs (both the character stars and the whole array of supporting acts) is world class, historic, jaw-dropping, masterpiece level, performed by superhero animation-ninjas in East London’s Three Mills Studios. The UK is where the best stop-motion in the world happens – has been for some years, but that sumo sequence takes it to mic-drop levels. Boom.
Combining the techniques, the storytelling, the look and feel, the language challenge (which I personally love – why shouldn’t we be asked, sometimes, to work out what someone’s saying through their body language? Doesn’t that bring us closer to the dog characters?), the unflinching attitude to gore and suffering, the equally unflinching expressions of love and loyalty, the music (which is splendid) and all those Anderson editing and compositional quirks makes for an utterly unique film. It’s pretty much a new filmic language.
This is a movie that distributors Fox already fear is going to fly over the heads of The Great Movie Going Public. Judging by the reaction at last night’s screening, I think they should give the public a bit more credit – there was laughter, all the way through and at the right things, a few sniffles, applause at the end and a whole bunch of wow, that was amazing all around. Weird, but.. amazing. And probably even better second or third time around. (Marina Organ)
Links – WEBSITE
Directed by: Wes Anderson. Written by: Wes Anderson
Produced by: Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, Jeremy Dawson
Cast: F. Murray Abraham, Bob Balaban, Bryan Cranston, Greta Gerwig, Jeff Goldblum, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Mari Natsuki, Yojiro Noda, Kunichi Nomura, Edward Norton, Yoko Ono, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schreiber, Fisher Stevens, Tilda Swinton, Akira Takayama, Courtney B. Vance, Frank Wood
Here’s the trailer, but hey, beware, SPOILERS and such….