Isle of Dogs (2018)
Almost a decade ago, writer-director auteur Wes Anderson produced Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), which quickly nuzzled its way into my heart as one of the finest animated films of its time. Based on the children’s novel by beloved author Roald Dahl, it was a stop-motion masterpiece with wit, charm and memorable characters — a hilarious, heartfelt and accessible movie for all ages. Not surprisingly, I had high expectations for Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, which seemed to have all the right ingredients set in place to become another classic, my only concern being with the filmmaker himself, and whether he’d continue to indulge in his own aesthetic tastes rather than focus on delivering a wholly satisfying experience.
To backtrack, Fantastic Mr. Fox represented something of a shift into the third wave of Anderson’s filmography, the first featuring low-key stories that centered on young adults, such as Bottle Rocket (1996) and Rushmore (1998), before moving into the second phase, the grand family ensembles of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) to The Darjeeling Limited (2007). The third movement, which begun with Fantastic Mr. Fox, would include a set of stories that, at their core, explored the growing pains of young boys — Fox saw the painfully awkward Ash Fox (Jason Schwartzman) trying to find himself, as well as George Clooney’s older Mr. Fox having to grow up and become more responsible. Even the much-celebrated The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), while generally thought of as Monsieur Gustave’s (Ralph Fiennes) movie, is actually taken from the point-of-view of the teenage Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), and his evolution from boy to man.
Beyond the narrative themes, there was something else happening in this era, and that was within Anderson, who was trying to outdo himself in terms of motifs, narrative structure, an ever-increasing cast of characters, and of course the meticulous scale of the production, so much so that The Grand Budapest Hotel was, at least for me, a nauseating descent into pretentiousness. Isle of Dogs, while not quite at the extreme of the aforementioned, still shares some of that film’s peculiarities, namely the feeling that while there must be some sort of underlining message, it’s been so diluted in amongst the idiosyncrasies, that it may as well not even exist.
The new film is set in the near future, in Megasaki City, Japan, where Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) has exiled all dogs to Trash Island, after a dog flu virus had overtaken the canine population. Sometime later, a young boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin), nephew of the Mayor, crash lands on the isle in search of his beloved dog/ friend Spots (Liev Schreiber), who’d been dumped on the junk heap some time earlier. Befriending a close-knit gang of pooches, including reluctant leader Chief (Bryan Cranston) and second-in-charge Rex (Edward Norton), along with cohorts Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), the gang sets out on an adventure across the island to find out the fate of the missing Spots.
Meanwhile, back in the city, American exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) is slowly building a revolution of sorts to expose the Mayor’s darker nature, Tracy intent on bringing the dogs back into Japan, this by way of a cure to the virus, which is being developed by a scientist, Professor Watanabe (Akira Itō), in a retro-looking lab. As both Atari and Tracy itch closer towards the truth behind the rather harsh canine banishment, Mayor Kobayashi deploys all of his forces to try and crush the rebellion.
Written by four scribes, there may have been too many cooks in the kitchen with Anderson’s best buds Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, The Darjeeling Limited (2007), adding to the story, not to mention Japanese personality/ actor Kunichi Nomura. The result often feels undercooked with some big things being grossly overlooked. For one, I’m wondering whom the target audience is meant to be — with talking dogs, the immediate appeal to kids is obvious, but the surprisingly bloody spurts of violence and darker ideas involving suicide, neglect and the abuse of animals and children speak to more mature patrons. The pacing is also on the slower side, further isolating any younger viewers.
Then there’s the elephant in the room, which has an entire population of dogs living and breeding, yet we only see a few females. The ones that are visible appear to be little else than puppy-makers. Surely, it wouldn’t have taken much to present a more balanced portrayal with male and female dogs alike. Yes, you can argue that it’s evened out on the human side, however, this isn’t just a mere call for on-screen equality, it actually doesn’t make sense within the narrative world; it essentially breaks the reality of the situation presented.
Stemming from this, there are plenty of wasteful contributions, which suggests something of an inside joke amongst the creative team, aiming for little more than a stupidly big cast list. I’m talking about the one-joke inclusion of Yoko Ono playing a character called *rolls eyes* ‘Assistant-Scientist Yoko-ono,’ Anjelica Huston, The Addams Family (1991), as ‘Mute Poodle’ and Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), as Interpreter Nelson, roles that don’t seem worthy of the talents behind the mic. And I guess Scarlett Johansson must have been dreaming about kicking ass on the set of Avengers: Infinity War (2018), because she’s sounding terribly monotone and bored here as love interest Nutmeg. Highlights of the voice cast involved the gentle warmth of Liev Schreiber, The 5th Wave (2016), who’s perfectly cast as Spots, and the unmistakable gravel tones of Bryan Cranston, Power Rangers (2017), who voices the begrudged head of the pack Chief, these two characters playing off one another towards the climax in a moving, albeit kinda rushed moment.
Mercifully, there are other things to latch onto and enjoy, which get this one just across the line. To begin, the visual design, headed by production designers Paul Harrod, The PJs (1999-2001), and Adam Stockhausen, Ready Player One (2018) — all lovingly shot by Tristan Oliver, ParaNorman (2012) — is as wonderfully detailed and rendered as you’d expect. Though one of the least colorful films in Anderson’s filmography, piles of trash have rarely looked this interesting, certainly not since the likes of Disney-Pixar’s Wall-E (2008). Then there’s the brilliantly inspired music score by Anderson regular Alexandre Desplat, The Shape of Water (2017), once again, showing his uncanny skill of tapping into another world and rendering it sonically, with Japanese drumming taking center stage during the bookends.
Ultimately, Isle of Dogs doesn’t quite achieve all that it sets out to accomplish and yet, it has a dogged charm to get it by (pun intended). It certainly could’ve used a good script polish to tighten its intentions, but in its completed form, it’s still unique and intriguing enough to warrant a watch, especially with stop-motion a rarity in today’s CG dominated world.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie