Review - 'Isle of Dogs'
I went into Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs expecting to be swept off of my feet by the charming characters and colorful, inventive visuals that are staples of nearly all of the director's films, and while this movie did in fact have both of those traits, my feet remained firmly on the ground, my head lulled back and forth and at times I struggled to stay awake. Isle of Dogs, while being a passionately conceived technical achievement, can also be quite a slog at times.
Isle of Dogs takes place on Trash Island, an Island where, you guessed it, there is a lot of trash. This island is also home to all of the exiled dogs sent over from Megasaki City by corrupt Mayor Kobayashi due to a seemingly incurable dog flu virus. Atari (Koyu Rankin), the son of Kobayashi takes it upon himself to escape the city and find his dog, Spots, who had been shipped to Trash Island six months prior. When Atari crash lands on the island he meets up with the colorful canine inhabitants of the island where together they must find Spots.
I'm a bit of a new-comer when it comes to Wes Anderson, so much so that any big Wes Anderson fan might stop reading this review after the following sentence. I've only seen The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom and bits and pieces of The Fantastic Mr. Fox. That said, Wes Anderson has such a distinctive aesthetic that I can get a basic sense of the director as a whole based off of the films I've seen, and Isle of Dogs falls firmly within those parameters I've set. This is a very Wes Anderson movie, and I expect that the people that admire the director will also admire this film. Anderson has a very dry, droll wit to his films and his characters generally speak in a monotone voice as they remark on absurd happenings. This works in most of his films, but its laid on thick here, and sometimes what was originally meant to seem ironically boring actually becomes boring over long stretches of time.
I sound like I'm being harsh on the film, and I guess I am, but that's only because I had such high expectations for the next Wes Anderson joint. Despite swaths of this film being on the slower side, I still fall firmly on the more positive end of the spectrum and believe this film is worth watching provided you know what you're getting yourself into. This may appear to be a family film, it's really not, though kids may still get a kick out of it. Isle of Dogs is a smart film with some very interesting messaging that should provoke lengthy conversations, and it's not afraid to go to dark places to emphasize its points. The movie has a lot of timely things to say about government and how we treat outsiders. In fact, I think Wes Anderson might have been so caught up in presenting this message that he sort of lost sight of the fun.
Fortunately, Isle of Dogs has a heart of gold. Towards the end of the second act and through to the finale, Anderson really begins to tug at the heartstrings in all of the right ways. The relationship between the main dog, Chief, who is voiced perfectly by Bryan Cranston and the boy, Atari, voiced by Koyu Rankin, is the best quality of this film. The first act of Isle of Dogs seemed a tad scattershot and directionless until the story brought these two together and began to build their relationship, which culminates beautifully in the final act.
The rest of the cast is honestly a bit of an afterthought. Jeff Goldblum and Bill Murray are hilarious, but their voices are so recognizable that I separated them from their dog counterparts. Greta Gerwig is honestly a bit annoying as an American character named Tracy Walker, and Edward Norton is fine as a dog named Rex, but it really doesn't seem like he's doing anything different with his voice than just sounding like himself speaking in a monotone voice. Scarlett Johansson is a bit more memorable as Nutmeg, a show dog that takes a liking to Chief.
When it comes to its aesthetics, Isle of Dogs is firing on all cylinders. The stop-motion work here is clearly better than in Anderson's previous effort in the medium. The team that conceived all of these characters clearly knew what they were doing as the designs are charming and the colors compliment each other in a very pleasing way. Nearly every shot in Isle of Dogs is filled with beautiful imagery and stunning detail. I guarantee you that when this comes out on blu-ray my finger will constantly be hovering over that pause button just so I can examine some of the more complex shots. The music is also unique and immersive. The composer, Alexandre Desplat, implements taiko drumming in a very inventive way that suits the proceedings well.
There is so much to un-pack and consider with Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs, so much so that it's hard for me to tell who this film is made for. I can at least guarantee that most Wes Anderson fans will gobble this up like candy, but as for everyone else, I can't quite definitively say. I personally wasn't consistently entertained by Isle of Dogs, but I still think that from an artistic point of view, this film is an extraordinary accomplishment that in the end is worth experiencing.