Wes Anderson is one of Hollywood’s most critically acclaimed directors and he is back with a new film. He’s not back with just any film, for Isle of Dogs he has returned to the world of animation. In a time when Disney and Pixar rule the day, it’s hard for an animated movie not associated with those companies to break through. Filmmakers have the choice of either trying to do what has already proven to be a commercial success or try to catch viewer’s eyes by doing something different. Anybody that has any familiarity with Anderson’s films knows that his films are always different. He has a very distinct style that is unlike anything else in film. This can also be said about Isle of Dogs. He decided to use stop-motion for the animation and that couldn’t be any more different than what would be considered “mainstream” for animation. This technique brought him plenty of success with his first animated film Fantastic Mr. Fox. It was a critical darling that got two Oscar nominations including one for Best-Animated feature. With that in mind it makes perfect sense for him to go back to this well. While it’s too early to tell if it will achieve the same critical success as Fantastic Mr. Fox, it’s definitely off to a good start with an 82 Metascore and a 91% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Just from the trailer you can see why critics would love this film, it looks great. That holds true for the entirety of the film. The animation is incredible. Deciding to use stop motion was the right choice because it made for a unique and interesting experience. This film is memorable simply because of the animation. This is a technique that has been used in some of the most popular (and well received) animated movies in history. Movies such as Shaun the Sheep, Coraline and Anomalisa have all used stop motion animation to earn Oscar Nominations. However, this brand of animation still isn’t very prevalent. The uniqueness of the animation works in the film’s favor here because you will not see an animated movie that looks like this again this year.
The animation is good because it’s unique but is also really well done. It looked good and allowed for Anderson to put a lot of very detailed touches on it. The freckles on Tracy Walker’s face, the cuts on the face of Atari and the patches of missing fur on Chief are just some of the details that will catch your eye. It’s the details that really help this film to shine. Pretty much every animated movie has great animation these days; the most memorable movies usually have subtle details to them that bring their animation to life. Isle of Dogs is full of that. It is also full of little details apart from the animation that help bring the animation to life. One of those details was when any characters started to fight. Anytime that would happen the fight would be clouded by dust. You can’t make out any particular details of the fight you just see random things in the clouds. This was an excellent little touch. It was fun and unique, and it sets the film apart because it’s rare to see actual “dust ups” on screen. This film is full of little details like this. Not only do they make the film more real and more beautiful, but it also makes it rewatchable because you’ll find new little details every time.
The visuals in Isle of Dogs are where the film is at its best. Unfortunately, the story is where the film falls short. Wes Anderson worked with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura to develop a story of a boy searching for his lost dog in Japan. When the story is centered on that mission it was good. Having five dogs being the main focus of the story worked very well because they all played off of each other well. What didn’t work in this story was the young boy, Atari. He didn’t speak English and even though there were other segments of the film that were translated, none of his scenes were. This is a problem because it makes it hard to make any real connection with him. All we really know is that he is looking for his dog and he loves that dog (that part is even a bit of a stretch because we only see one flashback). A lot about the character is implied, but it doesn’t really come through.
He is led on the journey to find his dog by a pack of dogs, Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). This part of the movie works because of this pack of dogs, they are great together. Their quippy banter is funny and helps to move the story along at a good pace. This is where we see a couple of great bits that provide a lot of humor. The fact that all of the dogs are “alphas” so they all have to vote on every decision and all of the rumors that Duke hears are great additions to the script. If these dogs were the protagonists, then this would be great and would make the movie better. However, they are not. Atari is the protagonist and he doesn’t bring a lot to the story. It’s unfortunate that his character is tough to connect with because of the language barrier but there are parts of the film that don’t make any sense because what he is doing or thinking doesn’t come across. The adventure this group of characters goes on is fun and interesting but ultimately falls flat because of the lack of connection.
It also falls flat because that adventure has a political story woven through it that does nothing but complicate the whole thing. The reason why the dogs are on the island makes sense. The “dog flu” is making the dogs sick and there is a chance that it could cross over to humans. The rest of what was taking place with the Mayor and Tracy Walker was a mess. This storyline took away from the story because it wasn’t very clear and more than that it was unnecessary. There doesn’t need to be a conspiracy to try to destroy all of the dogs, just having them on the island works enough for the adventure that this story is supposed to be about. It’s disappointing because Wes Anderson is a good storyteller and there are elements of this story that are really good, however he reached a little too far and it brought the whole story down.
Even though the screenplay is the worst part of Isle of Dogs, it’s the worst part of an otherwise great film. It is still a clinic on filmmaking. The way Anderson uses camera angles and setting to build an environment is incredible. The film is wonderfully unique and incredibly intricate. There is value in that. This is stop motion animation at its best and that is fun to watch. This won’t go down as one of Wes Anderson’s best films but it will still be one of the best-animated films of the year.
3 ½ out of 5 stars
Director: Wes Anderson Writers: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman & Kunichi Nomura Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand & Scarlett Johansson Release Date: April 13th, 2018 Rated: PG-13 Runtime: 1 hour and 41 minutes Image Credit: Fox Searchlight