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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Isle of Dogs, Review: No bow-wows only wow-wows

Isle of Dogs, Review: No bow-wows only wow-wows

Dog lovers of the world, unite, stop motion—you have everything to keep but your dogs to lose! Imagine a scenario where all the dogs in a city are captured and dropped-off on a deserted island by cable cars, because of a dog flu epidemic. The story is set in Japan, in the dystopian near-future, and a lot of the dialogue and captions/sub-titles are in Nihongo…er…Japanese. But the appeal is universal, both to dog lovers and pet-neutrals. Dog-haters? Well, okay, you need not bite into this one!

It is the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki, where the Mayor has ordered all dogs to be banished to Trash Island. The first dog to be sent into exile is called Spots, the bodyguard of Atari, a distant nephew of the Mayor Kenji Kobayashi, a cat lover. Atari, who looks 9 and is supposed to be 12 something, has a bone to pick with his uncle, but the Mayor, seeking re-election and using the epidemic and his assertive action as a platform, is unrelenting. Atari, who has only one kidney, is so attached to the dog that, one fine day, he hijacks a mini turbo-prop jet plane and fliesit into Trash Island, where he trash lands…er…crash lands. Now he must find Spots, from the thousands of doggies who populate the island.

Atari meets a pack of diverse natured canines led by a chief called…Chief, who lead him to a dog in cage, with a tag that could be Spots, only the dog is dead and the cage is locked. They fend off a rescue team sent by Kobayashi to retrieve Atari, who wields deadly catapult (slingshot) with perfect aim. At the insistence of a female pure breed named Nutmeg, Chief reluctantly decides to accompany the group on their search.

There is still hope that Spot could be alive, so the ragtag pack leads Atari to meet two wise dogs, Jupiter and Oracle. Chief is reluctant first, because of what humans did to his genre, but gives in eventually. The wise duo offer a possibility of finding Spots, but warn them about warn them of cannibal dogs on an isolated part of the island. In Megasaki a scientist, Professor Watanabe, who was close to finding a cure, had been killed by Kobayashi. American exchange student Tracy Walker increasingly suspects a conspiracy and begins to investigate. She confronts Watanabe's former colleague Yoko Ono (oh no,   yes, you read that right), who confirms Tracy's suspicions and gives her the last dose of the cure.

However incredible the script might have been on paper, it had to be interesting on screen and within the boundaries of suspended disbelief. Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura’s story, and director Wes Anderson’s own screenplay, all work on the right levels. There are dollops of humour, beginning with names like King, Duke, Boss, Chief, Megasaki and Major Domo, not to mention singer Yoko Ono, wife of former Beatle, late John Lennon. Scenes like the opening of the cage are carefully crafted and bring forth the mandatory chuckles. Grooming of the man’s most favourite pet at the hands of Atari leads to a twist in the story that the late Manmohan Desai (Indian director, who revelled in lost and found stories) might have been delighted to see.

Roman Coppola (The Darjeeling Limited, Somewhere, Moonrise Kingdom, The Beguiled) is the son of Francis Ford Coppola, which would have been a 100/100 guess, since there aren’t many Coppolas around in Hollywood. He has collaborated with the other two writers. Jason Schwartzman is a singer-actor-writer, going back to the keyboards with this film, after The Darjeeling Limited. Kunichi Nomura is a writer, actor, radio personality, book editor, interior designer, creative director, and DJ from Tokyo, Japan. He makes his debut as the co-writer in Isle of Dogs. And their anchor is Anderson, the writer/co-writer, of Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, She's Funny That Way. And boy, have they done their homework! And how did Wes Anderson put it all together? There are several nuggets, like the scene in which Atari cannot pass through a passage because an angry samurai statue placed there has this written on his sword, “(You must be this tall).” Buses in many countries allow children under a particular height to free or at concessional fares. Ironically, Isle of Dogs got a PG13 certification. Among the funnily memorable moments in the film is the cage-opening scene and the socio political allegory sub-text about class conflicts and electioneering tactics.

Though humans play integral characters in the story, dogs of all colours, shapes and sizes are the ones who steal the show. 240 micro sets were created and has a total of 1,000 clay. Puppets used. Based on various observations and analysis of filming the pups, director Wes Anderson along with Andy Gent, the head of the puppets department, used clay to sculpt dog puppets. Out of the 1,000 clay puppets created, with more than 70 artists on the puppet team,   half and half were dogs and humans. Claymation, Stop Motion...what a way to go!                     

Anderson, who had previously directed the animated film Fantastic Mr. Fox, said that he was inspired by seeing a road sign for the Isle of Dogs in England, while Fantastic Mr. Fox was in development. Anderson has also said that the film was strongly influenced by the films of Japanese Master, late Akira Kurosawa, as well as the stop-motion movies made by Rankin/Bass Productions. Atari is probably inspired by the lonely heroes drifting through Kurosawa’s films. Situations from Seven Samurai are another clear influence, as are the colour schemesof Isle of Dogs.

Among the main cast who voice the central characters in the film, Bryan Cranston of 'Breaking Bad' fame is cast as the character of the alpha dog, Chief while Bill Murray plays Boss, a former basketball mascot. Koyu Rankin voices Atari, the 12-year-old adventurer and pilot. Scarlett Johansson is Nutmeg, a high-pedigree pup, while Edward Norton portrays Rex. The rest of the voice cast comprises:

Kunichi Nomura as Mayor Kobayashi (doubling up as a writer and voice)

Akira Takayama as Major Domo

Greta Gerwig as Tracy Walker

Frances McDormand as Interpreter Nelson

Akira Ito as Professor Watanabe

Harvey Keitel as Gondo

F. Murray Abraham as Jupiter

Yoko Ono as Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono (!)

Tilda Swinton as Oracle

Ken Watanabe as Head Surgeon

Mari Natsuki as Auntie

Fisher Stevens as Scrap

Nijiro Murakami as Editor Hiroshi

Liev Schreiber as Spots

Courtney B. Vance as the narrator

Yojiro Noda as News Anchor

Frank Wood as Simul-Translate Machine, helping us non Nippons understand a language that's Greek and Latin to most of us

Roman Coppola as Igor (with writers doing voicing

Anjelica Huston as Mute Poodle

Kara Hayward as Peppermint

And that is some cast!

Star Studios has released the film in India, through Specialty Distribution Company Runaway-Luminosity.

A dog film it may be, and I make no bones about it, but it has no bow-wows in the 101 minute run (since the dogs speak English) and many a wow-wow moments. Wes Anderson won Best Director for this film at the last Berlin Film Festival, which is one more reason to check it out.

Wes Anderson’s direction dares to create new cinematic phrases that deserve a looksee. Watch it, is what I say, in plain English, but as this review was written when it was late evening in Japan, let me add an Oyasu minasai to all my Japanese readers. (I really hope there are a few, at least).

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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