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Atari Kobayashi is the 12-year-old ward to corrupt Mayor Kobayashi. When all the canine pets of Megasaki City are exiled to vast Trash Island, Atari sets off in search of his bodyguard dog, Spots. With the assistance of his newfound mongrel friends, he begins an epic journey that will decide the fate and future of the entire prefecture. (From Fox’s official synopsis)

 Isle of Dogs
Welcome back to the meticulously crafted, obsessively stylized, and fussily particular world of Wes Anderson. It has been four long years since he defied waning expectations to create his magnum opus of neurotic idioms, Grand Budapest Hotel, and he has returned to feature-length stop motion for the first time since 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox – itself the film that convinced me personally that Anderson had finally superseded the formula that made The Darjeeling Limited (2007) such a chore. Isle of Dogs is too embroiled in specific compulsions to win over new converts and is just PG-13 enough to not be entirely kid-friendly (I assume children won’t be bothered by the violence, because it’s presented in such an aloof manner), but is still probably high on the list of his most accessible work. The film’s whimsical, varied animated world nourishes the director’s favourite brands of humour (heavy sarcasm, breakneck sight gags, kids acting like adults, loads of deadpan delivery) and all of his specific stylistic tastes. The animation itself – which is largely stop motion, but occasionally modified with hand-drawn and computer composite pieces – is technically quite impressive, offering a fun, indie counterpart to Laika’s format-defying pseudo-blockbusters.

The retro-futuristic Japan setting is problematic from the uncomfortable standpoint of “othering” an Asian culture without bothering to represent it* and smells like an arbitrary attempt at revisiting the random Eastern Europeanism of Grand Budapest Hotel. In both cases, the use of location, era, and central plot devices seem to represent social/political subtext, but Anderson’s modus operandi insists that bigger ideas don’t really matter. Character attachments and arcs (or lack of arcs) are usually at the center of his stories, not measurable thematic statements. This is a more endearing habit when Anderson is fabricating his versions of bygone historical wars. The charm is dulled when he’s speculating about the future social spectrum of an existing country (beside of his own) and especially when he’s poking fun at the concept of political insubordination (I mean, an American exchange student leads the revolution…). All things acknowledged, however, Isle of Dogs does celebrate Japanese culture in a usually adorable way (standalone samurai and sushi-making motifs are cute, while some humans are grotesque stereotypes in every sense of the phrase). Those already predisposed to enjoy Anderson’s assortment of twee-flavoured treats should still find plenty to love about the movie, in spite of these admittedly Anderson-esque shortcomings.

 Isle of Dogs

Video


Isle of Dogs was shot using little Canon EOS digital cameras, which makes sense for a picture full of stop motion miniatures. This Blu-ray is presented in the original 2.40:1 aspect ratio and 1080p video. This is the first time since The Darjeeling Limited that Anderson has used a consistent and anamorphic scope ratio ( Grand Budapest Hotel alternated AOs depending on the point of view) and it’s fun to see him playing with the same types of wide, obsessively balanced compositions that defined his earliest work. Taking into account the fact that Anderson and his animators are constantly pulling focus between the fore and backgrounds, this is a highly detailed transfer, swimming in texture and subtle, but strong dynamic range. The lighting aesthetic is diverse and the filmmakers have taken pains to recreate natural, full-scale imagery, which means some scenes are quite dim. This creates minor noise and blending issues, but there aren’t major signs of compression, like blocking or banding. The palette is equally eclectic, extending from stark, desaturated shots all the way to fully candy-coated overloads. The brightest hues are effectively vivid without too much unintentional bleeding.

Audio


Isle of Dogs is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. Wes Anderson doesn’t tend to make movies with particularly aggressive soundtracks, but he can always be depended on for quirky directional cues and a lively aural field. This movie is no exception and, in fact, may be his most expressive work in terms of cartoonish sound design. The highlights include mostly fast-paced action bits, but there’s also plenty of environmental ambience and depth throughout the quieter sequences. Anderson’s favourite composer (really, the world’s favourite composer these days), Alexandre Desplat, works from traditional Japanese themes, often using traditional Japanese instruments, and further flavours his score with selections from Japanese movies. The taiko drums offer impressive LFE support, which is otherwise limited by the relatively gentle mix.

 Isle of Dogs

Extras


  • Promotional featurettes – A series of really short EPK interviews with the cast & crew that include behind-the-scenes footage:
    • Animators (3:42, HD)
    • Isle of Dogs (5:09, HD) – Fully animated cast interviews
    • Puppets (4:03, HD) – Concerning puppet fabrication
    • An Ode to Dogs (2:00, HD) – The cast celebrates dogs, complete with footage of dogs hanging out on set.
    • Magasaki City and Trash Island – A look at set, production, and graphic design
    • Weather and Elements – On creating stop motion special effects
  • Image gallery
  • Trailer


 Isle of Dogs

Overall


In typical fashion, Twentieth Century Fox sent this screener on its release date, so I apologize if my review seems clipped. Even if the disc hadn’t arrived late, I doubt I would’ve had a lot more to say, because Isle of Dogs, like most (all?) of Wes Anderson’s movies, is too focused on meticulous visual and comedic motifs to reveal a whole lot beneath its surface. While I’m bothered by the film’s arbitrary use of real-world culture and relevant political issues, the emphasis on surface-level charm and lack of subcutaneous purpose is more or less what I look for in a Wes Anderson movie (I’m not even annoyed he’s recycling characters, plot devices, and climaxes anymore). On technical merit alone, I recommend the film to the director’s fans, as well as fans of animation in general. This Blu-ray looks and sounds wonderful, but the extras are slim enough to suspect that a Criterion disc might be around the corner – though that’s probably a couple of years away.

* I’m not prepared in terms of knowledge, time, or cultural privilege to completely cover this angle, so here are a couple of links to thoughtful analyses by actual Asian American writers:

Wes Anderson’s ‘Isle of Dogs’ Is Gross Japanese Appropriation by Karen Han (via Daily Beast)

Wes Anderson's 'Isle of Dogs' is often captivating, but cultural sensitivity gets lost in translation by Justin Chang with Jen Yamato (via Los Angeles Times)

Is Wes Anderson’s ‘Isle of Dogs’ Delightful, Culturally Insensitive, or Both? with Inkoo Kang, Dana Stevens, and Forrest Wickman (via Slate)

 Isle of Dogs

 Isle of Dogs

 Isle of Dogs

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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