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Isle of Dogs review - weird and wonderful, but wuff around the edges


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Isle of Dogs is weird, wonderful and packed with exqusite and meticulous details - in other words, it's a Wes Anderson film. The great, lively and imaginative bits mostly outweigh the headscratchers. Mostly.

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Isle of Dogs is a stop-motion animated film set in a dystopian future Japan, in which the entire canine population is forcibly exiled to a placed Trash Island (because of how now nice and clean it is) due to growing concerns about a dog virus. Also, the people are prejudiced against dogs because the ruling class prefer cats - as you do.

The young ward of the Mayor of Megasaki City, Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) goes to Trash Island to search for his lost dog/personal bodyguard Spots. There he meets a pack of dogs - Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray) and Chief (Bryan Cranston) - who decide to help. Hijinks ensue.

All of the dogs speak English (advanced bark translation technology), whereas the human characters speak their native languages, mostly Japanese - with no subtitles. This is one of the movie's biggest headscratchers.

A lot of the Japanese dialogue ends up translated via third parties (like an interpreter played by Frances McDormand) for exposition purposes - so much so that you start to wonder why the movie didn't just opt for a straight up English dub or just, you know, subtitles.

There are easier ways to establish that the dogs and humans can only communicate with their own species. The language barrier the movie sets up is unnecessary and also shows the movie's hand by clearly positioning it for a Western, English-speaking audiences.

Like the dogs, we're not supposed to understand what the Japanese characters are saying, except for a few simple phrases and commands. It's weird for a movie that incorporates Japanese culture and folklore to such an extent to also treat its Japanese characters like foreigners.

Adding to that somewhat problematic conceit is the character of Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), a foreign exchange student and at least part-time white saviour. 

Other problems with Isle of Dogs include a story that zigs and zags all over the place, with a long parade of flashbacks that mess up the pacing. At one point, Rex, King, Boss and Duke just kind of stop being important to the plot, despite starting off as main characters. The movie's female characters, dogs and human alike are fairly underwritten as well. 

So yeah, that's a long list of gripes - why the high score then? Well, despite all of these problems, Isle of Dogs is an undeniable feast for the eyes. I'm not usually big on stop-motion animation, but this movie is just gorgeous. Every frame is a treat and you can feel the love, care, talent and effort that went into making the whole thing come to life. 

The star-studded voice cast is also a definite plus. Characters are often a little too talkative, but the writing for the most part is funny, bizzare or engaging enough to make it work. There are also some genuinely sweet, touching moment sprinkled throughout - a flashback to Spots and Atari meeting for the first time, and the bit of bonding between Atari and the gruff Chief are particular highlights. They might even get you to shed a tear.

Isle of Dogs is a plethora of wonderful little things and quirky ideas that add up to a mostly amazing whole. The problems do stick out and dampen the experience somewhat, but they're worth bearing for the good bits, especially the dazzling visuals. 

The creativity and talent on display with respect to the sets, props, models and such is enough to make you giddy. It's like a sugar rush from meticulously arranged, carefully animated, neverending eye-candy.

If it wasn't so full of bizzarre-in-a-bad-way creative decisions (what's the deal with the cats anyway? They never speak or do anything even though it's hinted that they have a larger role to play), Isle of Dogs would have been a masterpiece. As it stands, it's just pretty darn good and definitely worth a watch.

Isle of Dogs hits cinemas on March 30th.

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