Many choice words have been used in describing Wes Anderson and his body of work. One of the more apt descriptors is “meticulous.” With Isle of Dogs, the director’s second foray into the realm of stop motion animation, meticulous is perhaps an understatement.
There is an exacting precision to every shot and animated piece of mise en scene on display in the film, which tells the story of the aftermath of a fictitious war of dogs that ended in an “Age of Obedience.” Then, following the sudden onset of dog-transmitted diseases, tyrannical and dog-hating Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) orders the deportation of all dogs to “Garbage Island.”
It is here where we meet a crew of dogs, led by the embittered alpha stray Chief (Bryan Cranston). When the nephew of Kobayashi, Atari (Koyu Rankin), crash lands on the island, the dogs decide to help him find his deported pup (Liev Schreiber).
Along the way, there are meditations on liberty, dictatorship, and mental health in states of crisis. These themes are all well and good, but the film functions better when looked at for its simple search and rescue narrative. This is mainly because the lighthearted story and the darker political themes embedded in this story don’t tend to mesh.
Not to mention that viewing this film as one that has any claim to political aims leads down the inevitable path of questioning the director’s appropriation of Japanese culture. In using the culture in the idiosyncratic way that he treats all of his subject matter, Anderson does appear to set himself up for criticism. It certainly isn’t always the most nuanced depiction, but it is at least evident that it is a depiction of reverence.
On a related note, the film’s only white character, the Greta Gerwig-voiced foreign exchange student and passionate revolutionary Tracy, is the biggest flaw the movie presents. Some critics have decried the character as a “white savior,” but I think she functions more as an inconsequential bystander.
Yes, she is the one who spear-heads the resistance movement against the banishment of dogs, but when it comes time for her final effort another character steps in to more adequately save the day. For most of her time on screen she is merely reiterating what the audience already knows, acting as a one-step-removed redundancy.
Other characters in the film have a more integral role to play. Most notably, Cranston’s Chief. While his relationship with the other dogs on the island and the human newcomer to his life bear out what should be an emotional arc, it is hard to feel the emotions when you have to sift through the wry, distancing humor to get to it.
This humor, as much as it does stunt whatever emotional resonance that one is meant to receive from the film, is effective. Anderson and his repertory cast know how to hit the rhythm of a dead-pan joke.
The visual display yields some humor on its own, as well. The editing and the intricacies of the animation are also dynamic, keeping the pace of the film light (until the climax and resolution portion, where you start to feel the gears grinding).
Isle of Dogs excels in its animated form. The stylization, with the rich textures and visual motifs, is the driving force. Beyond the animation and the terrific voice cast, however, there is something to be desired. The storytelling is not as well-rounded as Anderson’s best. Missing is a general affection for the characters that we buddy up with for the entirety of the film. Most of the dogs are simply treated as running gags. As engaging as the film is from a visual standpoint, as entertaining as it is in the moment, the lack of an emotional core keeps it from sticking with you.
Isle of Dogs: B
As always, thanks for reading!
Like CineFiles on Facebook for updates on new articles and reviews
Check out my page on Letterboxd
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)