Movie Review: Isle of Dogs
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, everyone else who’s ever been in another Wes Anderson movie
You probably already know if you want to see Isle of Dogs or not. It’s a Wes Anderson movie, which are known for being immediately appealing or off-putting depending on the viewer. It’s a stop-motion animated movie, a type of animation that has a particular cult-like following among animation fans (including yours truly). It might be a movie about dogs, but unlike many movies about dogs which shoot for mainstream family audience approval, this one is definitely made with a specific audience in mind: nerdy Fandersons who respect the craft of stop-mo. For that audience, it’s definitely a dream come true—a gorgeous, beautifully animated and delightfully quirky film. As far as ranking it in the annals of Anderson’s films, I’d probably put it below the last three. Those last three are all perfect 10s, though, so take from that what you will. In any case, Isle of Dogs might not be my favorite Wes Anderson film (Moonrise Kingdom still holds that honor), but it certainly continues the director’s hot streak.
First, as a disclaimer: I would like to dispel the notion that this movie is in any way intended for children. Since it’s animated and Anderson’s last animated film was pretty appropriate for children, it would be easy to get that impression; since this movie has a PG-13 rating, it should go without saying that it’s not quite the case here. There’s a bit of foul language, a decent amount of violence, some implied sexual content in dialogue, and a humorous kidney transplant performed in full view for the audience. Aside from all of that content that would make it an iffy choice for the under-11 set, it’s closer in tone and content with Anderson’s other, more adult-oriented films that I can’t really imagine children will be interested in it. I would highly suggest renting Fantastic Mr. Fox instead of this; if your kiddo is over 11 and liked Fantastic Mr. Fox a lot, I would say it’s probably still a strong maybe. I wish I didn’t have to give the whole “be careful about taking your kids to a particular animated movie” spiel, but there you go. This one’s for artists and maybe nerdy teens, people.
As any longtime viewer of Anderson’s work will immediately tell you, one of the main draws of his movies is the artfully crafted look that each one has. Here, it’s even more immediate. A lot of modern stop-motion animation is made to resemble computer animation, all of the tell-tale jerkiness and quirkiness of it masked by supplemental CGI. Here, that’s not the case Comparing this film to the work of Laika, especially their latest Kubo and the Two Strings, there’s a huge difference. Anderson’s work looks crafted; the fight scenes are done in cartoony fight-clouds of smoke made obviously of synthetic stuffing like you’d find in a doll. When characters speak or move, there’s little attempt to hide that the movements aren’t quite perfect. As a result, it’s somehow even more artistically appealing than if it were seamless. Of course, the art design and cinematography are as perfect to the last detail as they are in every other Anderson film. There are dozens of scenes that I would love to take a screenshot of and hang on my wall. This movie took four years to put together, and it shows; not a single element of it, from the mix of traditional animation in some scenes to the way select dialogue is translated, feels less than considered. Even the character design is immaculate and absurdly detailed. (I was especially fond of Tracy’s design; must be the poof of blonde hair or the long, awkward legs.) Anyone who wants to go into stop-mo should watch this movie just for the sheer level of craft in it; it’s awe-inspiring.
The story (or stories) wrapped in this beautiful artistry aren’t quite up to the same fabulous standards, but they work. The first story, of the dogs on the island helping Atari Kobayashi find the dog that was taken from him and a dog who was once a stray coming to love a human again, is the one that will resonate most with pet owners. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s done without artifice. The way Atari connects with Spots in flashback for the first time, and Chief’s reaction to getting a dog treat and a bath for the first time are scenes that will tug at the heartstrings of all but the most hardened moviegoers, completely without sap. The subplot of corruption in Megasaki City, from suppression of the cure for dog flu to murder, distortion of truth, and anti-dog propaganda, is a little less engaging, but it has a lot to say about timely and relevant topics in the world so I can’t say that it’s unnecessary. It’s also somewhat farcical, which works substantially better in animation than it would in live action—Anderson uses the strangeness of the medium to maximize humor and poke fun at conspiracy thrillers in ways that he couldn’t do if he were making this any other way.
Something that’s been making chatter in some corners of the Internet is whether or not this movie is culturally insensitive. Not being Japanese, I can’t testify to whether that’s the case or not. The only thing that stood out to me is that Tracy Walker, foreign exchange student and reporter for her high school newspaper, could play into the White Savior narrative—having the white American girl be the one obsessively uncovering all the lies and secrets seems a little lazier than I’d expect from a smart director. But taking into consideration that socially conscious American teenagers are loud and like having their opinions known, it makes sense—and Tracy certainly isn’t the only one who saves the day in the end, as both Atari and some of the others on the pro-dog team are working as much, if not more, than she is. That is the most pressing issue for me in terms of how culture is handled—Japanese-American response to it has been mixed but fairly positive—and as one of the co-writers of the movie is Japanese, I feel like it’s at least in slightly good hands. Again, I’m no authority on this and I suggest finding those who can speak about it more eloquently than I, but compared to something like Doctor Strange, my alarm bells aren’t quite going off. Then again, I missed all of the controversial content in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri this past fall, so...
What kept me from loving Isle of Dogs like I wanted to is that, at times, the movie is too busy. Wes Anderson loves his big casts, and this is one of his biggest yet, but it’s hard to keep everything straight throughout the movie. Sometimes there was so much going on and so many roles to keep track of that my head spun. I feel as if trimming the cast of characters just a little might have made it a slightly stronger film, not that it isn’t a strong one already. The stories told here are very entertaining and could have been brought into even tighter focus.
Then again, Wes Anderson has always done things his way, and it always makes trips to see one of his movies a memorable experience. If Isle of Dogs isn’t as sweet and resonant as Moonrise Kingdom, as accomplished and entertaining as The Grand Budapest Hotel, or as fun and magical as Fantastic Mr. Fox, it’s still another wholly unique entry in a filmography that will be treasured by film buffs and oddballs long after Wes Anderson stops making movies. I wouldn’t suggest it as an entry point, but if you’re a Fanderson, you’ll probably like this.
Score: **** out of 5 stars.