When sitting down to a Wes Anderson film, I’m never quite sure what to expect. I know there will be an abundance of deliciously symmetrical frames, a surplus of wittily awkward dialogue, and I can always count on things to be more than a little bit weird. It is from that last understanding that the uncertainty arises because I’m not sure ordinary people can quite understand what is going on in Anderson’s head at any given moment.
So, when approaching Anderson’s latest stop-motion animated project, Isle of Dogs, I had very little idea what I was getting myself into. The best way I can think of to describe the film is as part mellancomedy (the word I came up with seven seconds ago do describe a melancholy comedy), part absurdist satire, and part dog appreciation manifesto. I laughed, I felt moved, and by the end of the experience, I wanted to go home and hug my dogs.
The story is remarkably simple: the mayor of the possibly insensitively named Japanese city Megasaki is more of a cat person, and a new virus called Dog Flu is dangerously close to infecting humans, so he exiles all dogs to the island where the city’s garbage is deposited. However, the indomitable Atari, a young boy and the distant nephew of the mayor, commandeers a plane and flies to trash island to rescue his dog Spots.
Naturally, things evolve from there, and we are introduced to a colorful cast of characters including a band of staunchly democratic puppers voiced by the likes of Bill Murray, Edward Norton, and Bryan Cranston. Their performances are predictably stellar, as are all of the actors lending their voices to the film. If I were to take the time to list them all out and describe their individual merits, this review would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 words, so I’ll spare you that. Suffice it to say, Anderson may have compiled the single most impressive voice-cast in the history of filmmaking. And he did it for an animated movie about dogs.
The animation is similarly outstanding. The models all have a wonderfully distinct look, and their movements are either jaw-droppingly smooth, or delightfully quirky, but in either case, it all works remarkably well. If I may indulge in a bit of subjective preferential observation, though, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how goddamn wonderful the fighting animations are. Watching a few dogs get into a tussle through a mound of continually shifting cotton balls is probably the most satisfying cinematic experience I’ve had this year.
If not the animation, then the visual presentation is without a doubt Isle of Dogs’ greatest strength. Aside from the ubiquitous Anderson Symmetry™, there is a wonderful sense of balance to every shot, and when subtitles appear, they frequently do so in unconventional locations within the frame. The cuts are punchy and sharp, and work beautifully with Alexandre Desplat’s phenomenal score to create a tone unlike anything I’ve seen before.
In a film bursting with original and unique choices, paramount among these is the decision to only ever have characters speak in their native languages. If there are subtitles, they are always contextual, like a live translation next to the mayor as he gives a speech. In addition to providing a few good laughs, this approach also aligns non-Japanese speaking viewers with the perspective of the dogs, who cannot understand anything young Atari says, with the exception of a few simple commands. A bizarre approach, but one that ultimately pays off.
It almost feels unnecessary to praise the directorial work of Wes Anderson at this point in his career, and yet he continues to produce such high-quality work that I can’t help but do so. His ability to pull the film’s most hilarious moments from characters’ static faces, simple gestures, or frankly-stated lines of dialogue instead of just a slew of dog puns puts most other comedy filmmakers to shame. To be fair, there are more than a few dog puns, but they’re tasteful.
The only real disappointments to be found here are in a few clichéd character arcs. In particular, Cranston’s character, Chief, gets the short end of the stick (yes, that was a terrible dog pun). The minute he explains his aversion to masters due to his life as a stray, I knew exactly where the film was going to take his character. And I was 100% correct. I suspect that few, if any, viewers will find much to be surprised by in that regard, but to the filmmakers’ credit, they did add some dimension to his personality and inner conflict that helps alleviate the irritation of his predictable storyline.
The only other issue I have is undeniably subjective, but also unshakable. Isle of Dogs is bursting at the seams with creativity, but it feels inessential. I laughed until it hurt during Grand Budapest Hotel, and I still return to that movie when I need a guaranteed good time (well, until the last three minutes). I’m not sure the same will be true of Isle of Dogs in the coming months and years. I thoroughly enjoyed its subtle wit and astounding visuals, but I rarely did more than chuckle at its japes, and the overall predictability of the story didn’t do much to liven up the proceedings.
Even so, Isle of Dogs is a stunningly unique film with overwhelming merit in quite literally every technical aspect; and it’s a hell of a lot of fun to boot. Wes Anderson has proven yet again that willingness to take risks and tell bizarre stories in unconventional ways can pay off in spades, and I can only hope that he continues to do so. Now, if you’ll excuse me, my dog is directly behind me as I write this, and I think she deserves some attention for being so patient.