Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBBB. USA/Germany, 2018. American Empirical Pictures, Indian Paintbrush, Studio Babelsberg, Twentieth Century Fox Animation. Story by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura, Screenplay by Wes Anderson. Cinematography by Tristan Oliver. Produced by Wes Anderson, Jeremy Dawson, Steven Rales, Scott Rudin. Music by Alexandre Desplat. Production Design by Paul Harrod, Adam Stockhausen. Film Editing by Edward Bursch, Ralph Foster, Andrew Weisblum.
An ancient wound between man and dog has not healed by the mid twenty-first century, the dog-hating Kobayashi dynasty still in control of Nagasaki City so many centuries after trying to destroy all the dogs in their kingdom. A “snout flu” has infected the city’s canines and this minor illness is used as an excuse to exile them to a trash island off the coast of their metropolis; their liberal, dog-loving opponents support a scientist whose vaccine for the flu has been suppressed and put the lab team in danger. The humans in this story, being Japanese, all speak that language except when the opportunity is presented to have a translator (voiced by Frances McDormand) deliver their dialogue to us (which furthers the atmosphere of manipulative propaganda that the story is commenting on), while the dog members of this beautifully animated film have their barks translated for us directly into English. On the island upon which these furry friends have been exiled, three former housepets follow an alpha dog, formerly stray leader (Bryan Cranston) from one garbage pile to another until a mysterious thing happens: a young member of the Kobayashi family crash lands on their island in search of his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber), the first pet to have been sent to the island, and they decide to help reunite boy and beast. Back in the city, a foreign exchange student and burgeoning activist teenager (Greta Gerwig) smells a conspiracy in the air and enlists her computer hacker friend to help take down a corrupt regime; it’s likely that her characterization as a westerner is a way to avoid worrying about translating her dialogue, but whether or not this subplot comments on or criticizes the White Saviour narrative that is being threatened here is not a point that all audiences will agree on. Serving so much entertainment on so many levels, this delightful film’s witty script is always hard to predict, and despite director Wes Anderson once again bringing us to the familiar Boys Only treehouse of his previous films (complete with daddy issues), finding the next twist in the loopy, complicated but satisfying plot is as much a pleasure as looking at the dazzling visuals. Using very modern and slick-looking stop-motion animation, every image emphasizes brightly rendered colours for a perfect reminiscence of Tohoscope films of the fifties. The humorous dialogue and characterization of the dogs, all of them as loyal, emotional and noble as your best four-legged friends ever were, make for deep laughs at almost every turn, resulting in the filmmaker’s strongest work in years.