It has been four years since director Wes Anderson’s previous film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was released. Furthermore, it has been even longer since his first attempt at helming a stop-motion animated film with 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. In this regard, his newest feature, Isle of Dogs, is among the most anticipated films of 2018. Not only is it Anderson’s return to the medium of stop-motion animation, the trailers have also promised another darkly humorous and delightful movie from a filmmaker whose output can be summarized in a similar fashion. So now that the film is out, how well does it live up to the hype?
In terms of it being primarily a stop-motion animated movie – certain elements like surveillance footage are done through traditional 2D animation – Isle of Dogs is an utter visual joy. From the set design of the Japanese mainland to the dog fur of the central characters, the film does a wonderful job at making the world feel tangible even though the events that are happening within it are fantastical. Anderson has always been known for using a dollhouse aesthetic in his movies, given his consistent use of pastel colors and symmetrical shot compositions, and similar to Fantastic Mr. Fox, the medium allows him to have full control of what goes into each frame. This means that he can convey expressions of characters in ways that are more intricate than a live-action production would allow.
Another benefit of the animation is how it shapes much of the film’s dark humor – which is just as charming as you would expect from an Anderson movie. Whether it be the perfect formation of explosions or the culmination of a brawl in the form of a cotton bunch with limbs sticking out, the movie consistently finds ways to depict violent events as oddly fun. For example, there is a sequence in which several dogs go through a death contraption. As we see more of the contraption, it is revealed just how ridiculous it really is due to the intricate nature of it all. This too fits with Anderson’s sensibilities since he often juxtaposes traumatizing events with a light-hearted tone in his work.
In addition to creating a strong visual aesthetic, the movie is also terrific at crafting a unique aural experience. Like most animated movies, the soundscape is created from the ground up using real-life objects, but this one is even more enthralling due to how layered the sounds get from time to time. Best of all is Alexandre Desplat’s drum-heavy score, which nicely conveys the large scope of the movie as well as heightening the dramatic moments. We are first introduced to the score through the drum performance in the opening credits, and it makes a great impression that remains for the rest of the film.
The movie gets enough right as a piece of filmmaking craft that it was always going to be good even if the story ended up being somewhat of a letdown. This turns out to be exactly the case, as the story is not remotely as engaging as its visuals or sound. While the film starts out quite well as it revolves around a boy named Atari Kobayashi searching for his recently exiled dog, it slowly reveals itself to be a narrative about political activism and treatment towards animals. The larger scope of the second half is admirable, to be sure, and it gives the film more thematic weight, but it is thematic weight that Anderson’s script – from a story credited to four people, including Anderson himself – is not entirely capable of handling. It also does not help that this section contains the most annoying character in the film: a foreign exchange student that was likely written as such because Anderson wanted to find some way to work with Greta Gerwig, who voices the character.
Also, because of the script is more interested in its themes than its characters, many of them become hard to distinguish between one another. This is most apparent with the main dog pack, consisting of Rex, King, Boss, and Duke, where they are mostly distinguished by means of their favorite food and not by their personality. If there is a sense of personality to be found in them, it is due to Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum’s delightful voice acting. Considering that they have worked with Anderson before, it is not surprising that they turn in relaxed, enjoyable performances.
If there are any characters that are genuinely compelling, it would be Bryan Cranston’s Chief and Koyu Rankin’s Atari. Both Chief and Atari get ample amounts of character development, whether through lengthy monologues or flashbacks. To top that off, both are well-rounded, layered characters that never feel like their only purpose is to serve the story. It seems that Anderson is aware of this because not only does he separate these two from the main dog pack at one point, he also uses them as a way to deliver the film’s main sentiment of “what happened to a dog being ‘Man’s Best Friend'”. In doing so, the ending becomes satisfying in a way that the majority of the second half does not.
There is a lot to admire about Isle of Dogs, from the fantastic stop-motion animation to the sweet relationship between Chief and Atari, and it is apparent in the final product that a truly great movie exists underneath the clumsy attempts to “Say Something Important”. It is just that this final product is overly ambitious in its efforts to be something more than its best elements suggest it could and should be. Ultimately, this is one of Wes Anderson’s weaker films, but if this is what “bad Wes Anderson” looks like, then kudos to him for having such a high-caliber filmography thus far. Because even with its faults, Isle of Dogs still makes for a fun time at the movies.
– Mark Tan
Isle of Dogs is now playing in theaters.
Isle of Dogs – A boy searches for his lost dog in Trash Island, a Japanese island that serves as a place of exile for the country’s dogs following a dog flu outbreak in the mainland.
Directed by Wes Anderson, Isle of Dogs stars Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum.