“Isle of Dogs” Review

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A Wes Anderson film about dogs is such an appealing concept that I was pretty much sold on Isle of Dogs before even getting into the theatre, but I’ll admit to still being surprised by the love and warmth Anderson continues to bring to his films. Isle of Dogs marks the ninth picture by the distinctive auteur director, and despite his filmic style evoking countless imitators and parodies his techniques never seem forced or artificial. Instead it feels like a singular story by a peculiar mind that could only be told in this way.

For a director as particular about production design as Anderson working in animation seems a logical decision, particularly stop-motion where the textures on each model can really come through. Nearly every frame is precisely arranged and awash with colour, even those on the grey and gritty garbage island, and the puppet designs of the canine characters lend them sweetness within their coarse hairs and scars. While 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox was a faithful adaptation of a classic Roald Dahl story presented with all of Anderson’s famous flourishes, Isle of Dogs allows him to make something entirely new. Drawing heavily on Japanese storytelling traditions to the point of opening with a Kabuki-styled expositional narration, the screenplay presents a dystopian view of Japan in the near future where all dogs have been cast out of the fictional city of Megasaki due to a widespread dog flu and sent to live on Trash Island. The first dog exiled belongs to the man behind the decision, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), but also happens to be the security dog of Kobayashi’s orphaned nephew and ward Atari (Koyu Rankin). Desperate to find and rescue the dog, Spots, Atari crash-lands a stolen plane onto Garbage Island and teams up with a group of dogs to find him and reveal the true extent of Kobayashi’s plans – even if they don’t necessarily speak each other’s language.

The language difference plays a vital role in how characters in Isle of Dogs, with many of Atari’s lines spoken through un-subtitled Japanese while the dogs communicate amongst themselves in English. While some scenes do contain either subtitles or translations through interpreters (primarily the comforting voice of Frances McDormand) the need to understand exactly what was being said quickly becomes irrelevant. Atari’s thoughts and feelings are easy to read through both his delightful character animation and the strength of the bond that naturally forms between a boy and his dog. Said dog characters are almost irresistibly lovable, with models that perfectly capture all those quirks and intricacies that make pooches such popular pets and each voiced to absolute perfection by an astonishing cast including Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murry, and F. Murray Abraham. It’s primarily the voice of Bryan Cranston as Chief, a life-long stray that adamantly refuses to have any sort of master, that really carries the emotions of the film. Cranston’s naturally gruff voice is ideal for such a character, and he gradually brings a softness into how he delivers each line as Chief opens himself up. The sheer amount of personality displayed through both the designs and vocal performances brings these very good dogs to life and demonstrates why people are able to form such strong connections with them, to the point that both pet and owner are able to do anything to protect the other.

Those who struggle to appreciate Anderson’s distinctive style aren’t going to be won over by Isle of Dogs, as all of his favourite techniques are on full display here, and the conversation about how he uses Japanese cultural elements is a larger and more complicated one than I know how to get involved in. But for how he blends the visuals, the lightness of a family-friendly story that never shies away from darker implications, Alexandre Desplat’s stylistically varied soundtrack, and the sheer charm of his characters, Isle of Dogs stole my heart completely.

5 stars.

“Early Man” Review

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With CGI as prevalent and accessible as it is today, any animation studio that still specialises in stop-motion animation has to be doing it out of sheer love for the form and how the handcrafted characters can bring a story to life. Aardman studios, the British company behind beloved figures like Wallace and Gromit, exemplify this approach through the charm and distinctive humour they bring to each of their films, from Chicken Run to Early Man. It is director Nick Park’s love of football in particular that carries Early Man, a film that is so British that it suggests much of mankind’s development stems from playing soccer.

After a disarmingly cute opening where the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs is turned into the first soccer ball by a group of confused caveman, Early Man jumps forward to the dawn of the Bronze Age. Our protagonist, Dug (Eddie Redmayne), is a young caveman living in a tribe under the rule of chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) within a forest valley surrounded by “The Badlands” – a rocky and volcanic area that visually resembles the land of Mordor from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. When the villainous Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) invades their land and declares the dawning of the Bronze Age, Dug and his pack must find a way to compete with the more advanced force or else be exiled into the badlands forever. The concept of a clash between characters from the Stone Age and the Bronze Age is rife with comedic potential, and indeed initial scenes of Early Man demonstrate Aardman’s well-established blend of sight gags and wordplay as Dug jumps between the two worlds. It’s when Dug challenges Nooth’s celebrated soccer team to a match for their land that the focus of the film turns too narrow, turning into a fairly standard underdog sports movie within an admittedly different setting. Whereas films like Chicken Run or Curse of the WereRabbit thrived on accessible stories that had almost universal appeal, I felt that in order to fully appreciate Early Man one would have to be a die-hard soccer fanatic. That’s not to say I didn’t find moments entertaining despite my lack of interest in the game, but more that I found it frustratingly specific in its execution of an exciting premise.

Like most of Park’s protagonists Dug is delightfully cute and earnest, voiced with just the right amount of sincerity from Redmayne as he leads a cast of notable British actors and comedians such as Richard Ayoade, Rob Brydon, and Miriam Margolyes. Tom Hiddleston’s bizarre French accent as Nooth is less appreciated, never quite fitting the world of the film and turning what could have been a smarmy love-to-hate villain into one that’s just annoying. Maisie Williams favours much better as Goona, a soccer player from the Bronze Age who comes to help Dug out due to not being able to join Nooth’s all-male team, but her role largely divulges into pushing every clichéd training montage and sports trope onto Early Man as the cavemen train for their climactic match.

Despite my initial enjoyment with Early Man the more it progressed the more predictable I found it to be, and the more tiring I found the potty humour and puns. There was just enough cleverness to keep me from dropping into out-right dislike, with a Manchester United pun towards the end that was so meticulously crafted that I have to give the screenwriters credit, and an always appreciated appearance by a giant monster duck, but as a fan of Aardman’s earlier works I’ll admit to coming away disappointed. It’s possible I just wasn’t the right audience for Early Man, but it’s hard imagining who the right audience is for a stop-motion children’s film about soccer-playing cavemen.

3 and a half stars.