"Isle of Dogs" (2018) Review
That name is enough to sell people on whether they want to see a movie or not. But on the flip side, it's also a name that will immediately erect a barrier for others. Wes Anderson is one of those filmmakers who has a specific aesthetic and characterization that literally stretches across his entire body of work, and depending on who you are, that's either great or bad. Personally, I've always enjoyed Wes Anderson's aesthetic in every film he's made, but it's the characterization where his films live or die.
Except maybe Isle of Dogs. I don't think Isle of Dogs characters are particularly strong or memorable in the pantheon of Wes Anderson's output, but it's a movie essentially made on a wager that relies on two factors:
1. That Wes Anderson's aesthetic translated into stop-motion animation is the perfection of his aesthetic and makes his films look far more beautiful than any other film you can watch right now.
2. That a "boy and his dog" story is so universal and ingrained into popular culture that the mere concept of the story can pick up the narrative slack as long as the actors give good performances.
Both of those factors pay off, though the first pays off more than the second. I'll try my best not to gush about the aesthetic here since that's kind of Wes Anderson's biggest trademark, but the visuals on display here are simply incredible. The stop-motion puppets are beautifully detailed, the backdrops pop with color and life, and there's even some 2D animation thrown in for good measure. Oh, and the music from Alexandre Desplat does a fantastic job of using Japanese percussion to set the tone throughout.
The story is weaker than the visuals, but it's not necessarily a bad story. The film declares that twenty years in the future, a disease called "snout fever" breaks out among dogs in Japan, leading the mayor of Megasaki, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura, one of the film's screenwriters), to hastily quarantine all dogs to "trash island." A pack of dogs led by Chief (Bryan Cranston) find their awful existence on the island interrupted by the crash landing of a small plane. The plane's pilot is twelve-year-old Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), searching for his own dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). Chief is forced by the rest of his pack, Rex (Ed Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), to help Atari find Spots.
There's also a major sub-plot involving the politics of Megasaki where corruption and propaganda runs rampant, and while it's a mostly fun story where some of the movie's heavier ideas are, it's not particularly deep. The main story on the island is where the movie finds most of its visual flourishes, humor, and heart throughout.
Bryan Cranston feels like one of those actors that was born to slip his way into Wes Anderson's ensemble casts, and he absolutely kills it here. His performance as Chief is one of the film's biggest highlights and his performance keeps the movie's momentum up. The "regular" Wes Anderson performers like Ed Norton, Bob Balaban, and Bill Murray are all decent, but the standout of his returning performers is Jeff Goldblum. His character Duke has one gimmick throughout the entire movie and it never failed to get laughter out of me.
Liev Schreiber's performance as Spots feels dead on as well, with Schreiber reining his performance in with great results. There's also a brief scene where Harvey Keitel voices on of the dogs that makes me wish he was in the movie more, but you can't have it all.
For me, the story's two biggest flaws are wildly different in the sense that one is easier to explain than the other in terms of expectations. The first is the film's ending, which wraps up the entire storyline a bit to neatly for its own good. The other is that the film never really surprised me with its progression. A lot of people seem to be under the impression that because Wes Anderson's aesthetic and characters often fall into repetitive templates that his stories fall into those same templates. Usually, they don't. His films have wild and shocking swerves in tone that make his work exciting and weird to approach every single time I've seen a new film of his. Never forget just how much he can change tone in a single movie (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou's entire third act is the first thing that comes to mind).
Isle of Dogs is mostly predictable, even though its narrative structure is unusual on the surface. You can predict entire character arcs within thirty seconds of meeting a character if you're a seasoned moviegoer and I wanted the film to upend my expectations. It occasionally did in small moments, but never at the scale of the previously mentioned third act of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou or even other films of his like The Royal Tennenbaums (which is still my personal favorite film of his).
For fans of Wes Anderson's aesthetic, you probably already watched this and I'm preaching to the choir a bit. For those on the fence, Isle of Dogs is one of Wes Anderson's better films, but definitely not his best. Seeing Wes Anderson render a "boy and his dog" story with Japan as its background yields about the results you'd expect with a few slight surprises.
Oh, and about the Japan aspect.
There's a massive conversation going on in the film critic world about Isle of Dog's use of Japanese culture and if the film's decision to leave Japanese dialogue untranslated as a narrative device makes Japanese characters an "exotic other." I'll straight up say that I'm not nearly qualified enough to try and enter that conversation, but I will say that the use of Greta Gerwig's exchange student character throughout does feel a bit off in ways I won't spoil here that can't help but put some "white savior complex" undertones into the movie. It's a conversation worth having, but I don't feel like I can put much into it, but I wanted to acknowledge it.