May 5th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY HECS: hastening our demographic winter

EDITORIAL Liddell is the 'fly in the ointment' of the NEG

AFRICAN AFFAIRS African Continental Free Trade Area ... in the spirit of GATT

CANBERRA OBSERVED Bernardi foray looks to be fading out of view

ENVIRONMENT Is a prolonged freeze on the way for the earth?

MEDICINE NaProTechnology: an ethical alternative in reproductive health

MEDICAL ETHICS Grounds for objection: a declaration on freedom of conscience

OPINION What a republic would really mean for Australia

LAW AND FREEDOM 'Rule of law' does not support exemptions: a reply to Robin Speed

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Saudi Crown Prince challenges Wahhabists

HIGHER EDUCATION Undoing the dis-education of Millennials

GENDER POLITICS Why are patients being denied freedom of choice?

ASIAN HISTORY Jinmen: the forgotten crisis that brought the world to the brink


MUSIC Grammy salute to Elton John: Revealing revisit to the 1970s

CINEMA The Isle of Dogs: Man's best friend in exile

BOOK REVIEW Australia, we need to talk about China

BOOK REVIEW Novelised life a vivid drama of survival



NATIONAL AFFAIRS Committal hearing dismisses main charges against Cardinal Pell

Books promotion page

The Isle of Dogs: Man's best friend in exile

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, May 5, 2018

Isle of Dogs is a charming and intricately crafted stop-motion animation from hipster auteur Wes Anderson about the adventures of a young boy trying to find his dog.

The story is a simple, almost noirish tale of the little guy against a hard and unfeeling world, but it is a redemptive one, offering a counterpoint to the bleakness and hopelessness and loneliness that could otherwise seem inevitable. The artistry alone marks it out as something different and beautiful.

Set 20 years in the future in Japan, Isle of Dogs depicts a corrupt administration seeking to wipe out dogs by exiling them to “Trash Island” – a rubbish tip and former industrial complex off the mainland.

The dogs are overrunning the city and have come down with contagious conditions that may also affect the human population. The dogs are struggling to survive, when into their midst comes Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), a 12-year-old boy and ward of corrupt Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), the architect of the “Isle of Dogs plan” and latest in the line of the cat-loving, dog-hating Kobayashi dynasty.

Atari has hijacked a small plane and flown to the island to rescue his bodyguard dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). He’s taken in by a pack of “scary indestructible alpha dogs” – actually a group of almost entirely polite and pampered pets that vote on what they’re going to do next – made up of motor mouthed Rex (Edward Norton), gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum), pet food ad dog King (Bob Balaban) and baseball mascot Boss (Bill Murray). Then there’s Chief (Bryan Cranston), the individualistic stray and “wild animal”, who’s part of the pack but disagrees with all of their decisions yet reluctantly goes along with them.

Meanwhile, back on the mainland, foreign exchange student and high school reporter Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) believes there’s a conspiracy and is out to find the truth, as only a brash and loud American can.

Isle of Dogs is an impressive film. Its intricacy and attention to detail is incredible and its artistry is astonishing – comparable to the stop-motion features of Laika, such as Kubo and the Two Strings – but with a much more complete and philosophically coherent story. Building on his earlier animation, the Roald Dahl inspired Fantastic Mr Fox, Wes Anderson has fashioned an elaborate puppet show – complete with named parts, a formal structure and a narrator (Courtney B. Vance) – and infused it with his characteristic dry humour, bathos and whimsy.

The taiko drumming set pieces alone are tours de force of puppetry and imagery. Moreover, Anderson has anything depicted on a screen, for instance a television monitor, presented in the style of a Japanese print.

This is a film unafraid to take creative risks, the most notable of which is how it deals with the dialogue. The Japanese dialogue is left untranslated, unless it is translated by a character in the film itself, such as Tracy or the official interpreter (Frances McDormand). While at times alienating for non-Japanese speakers, for the most part the dialogue is understandable thanks to non-verbal cues and tone. The barks, on the other hand, have been translated into English, allowing the cast to maintain the deadpan style common to all Anderson films.

As with any Wes Anderson movie, however, the humour is more chuckle or wry-grin inducing, instead of a guffawing belly laugh. The slapstick imagery is droll and deadpan, rather than outrageously over-the-top and Looney Tunes-ish. Instead of manipulating the audience into bawling, the more emotive scenes induce a restrained tearing-up, much like that of the characters themselves.

Due to its very simplicity, Isle of Dogs lends itself to a multiplicity of interpretations, depending on the sensitivities of its interpreters. It has been suggested that it is about the dangers of populism and demagoguery, or immigration and minorities, or animal cruelty or any other thing. But at its heart it is a fable about the love between a dog and its master, of responsibility and honour and loyalty, and finally, the reality of redemption.

Its tone is noirish at times, with an idealistic but hardbitten lone hero up against a corrupt establishment, seeking to do the right thing in a world that doesn’t make sense. But rather than spinning off into an abyss of despair, it ends with redemption and a delicate happiness.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).

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April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm