ISLE OF DOGS

I’m gonna have to come clean here: I honestly don’t really care for Wes Anderson. I admire his creativity, his unique visual style, and deadpan humor, but often times with him, it’s just too much. It’s too dry, too deadpan, and too visually obnoxious. I love weird and bizarre stuff, too, with his bizarre story concepts drawing me in, but it’s always been hard for me to get past his style. It’s just not for me, but as years go on and tastes change, I’ve grown to appreciate the more absurd fare coming lately. Perhaps a stop motion animated film about talking dogs is the perfect trick to get me on the Anderson train.

In Japan, 20 years in the future, a contagious disease known as Dog Flu has ravaged the canine population of the island. Megasaki City Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) issues a degree that banishes all of the city’s dogs to Trash Island. Six months after their initial banishment, Mayor Kobayashi’s nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin) crash lands on the island looking for his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). Teaming up with the dog Chief (Bryan Cranston) and his team of alpha dogs, they embark on a quest through the Isle of Dogs to find Atari’s old friend. However, danger is always following, as Mayor Kobayashi sends a team of soldiers, drones, and robot dogs to bring Atari back home. 

While I’m not the biggest Wes Anderson fan, I absolutely love stop motion animation. It’s my favorite medium of animation not just because of the unique and expressive things you can do with the physical characters, but also because of the time, dedication, and craftsmanship it takes to make everything come to life. It’s animation that’s actually full of life and having Isle of Dogs be stop-motion was the perfect way to let Anderon’s imagination to run wild. He’s no stranger to stop motion, having done Fantastic Mr. Fox back in 2009. Unlike that, which was based off a Roald Dahl novel, this is all from his and his creative team’s brains and I absolutely loved it. 

There’s just so much creative detail to be found, where I was in awe of the beauty of every frame. Anderson’s visual language is still ever present, with a lot of symmetrical close ups and wide shots, which actually immerses you more here, because it makes it easy to pick out all the fine details. The way the dog’s fur flows in the wind, the little bugs and pieces of trash stuck to them, the way their faces emote, the somewhat grotesque design of the human characters. It’s all so beautifully detailed and bizarre that I couldn’t get enough of it. One of my favorite touches was when it showed action happening on a TV screen, it was represented by anime, as opposed to the stop motion. There were so many neat little touches that just made me adore the whole aesthetic more and more. No matter how many times it happened, I couldn’t help but chuckle when a fight broke out into a cartoonish cloud of smoke, especially with how surprisingly violent it was. The cast all bring their A-game, further breathing life into their characters, with standout performances by Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, F. Murray Abraham, and Frances McDormand. 

While the film is funny and entertaining, it has this underlying dread to it’s tone, mostly thanks to Alexandre Desplat’s wonderfully moody score filled with deep bass lines and booming drums. As beautiful as everything was, there were some elements of the actually story that didn’t really connect with me. All of the moving pieces are there, but I felt like they were both too predictable and too underdeveloped to get the full emotional impact. Chief is a stray dog that doesn’t believe in obeying masters, so when he helps Atari looks for Spots, it’s clear where it’s all going to go. I loved everything about their relationship and Chief’s character arc, but I didn’t feel as emotionally satisfied as I feel I should have. It could be due to the odd pacing and structuring of the film, where intense scenes are interrupted by a flashback bogged down with exposition to fill in the gaps. One subplot features foreign exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig) discovering a conspiracy behind Mayor Kobayashi’s banishment of the dogs, inspiring the city’s citizens to rise up. It all felt unnecessary and really took away from the main story. If this character and subplot would have been omitted, the ending and overall story probably would have worked a lot more for me.

Some narrative issues aside, Isle of Dogs is simply just a visual treat to behold. The frames are filled to the brim with meticulously gorgeous animation, the actors are all fantastic, the sardonically dry comedy was hilarious, and it’s one of the most unique and entertaining animated films I’ve seen for quite some time. While I’m still lukewarm on Wes Anderson as a whole, nobody can deny that the man has a distinct vision that you’ll get absolutely nowhere else. The weirdness that inhabits his films can be very hit and miss, but with this, the weirdness struck every single chord with me. 

7.5/10

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