By: Steve Pulaski
This decade, Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel caught the auteur, unrivaled in his ability to make live-action dioramas and populate them with stylized characters, on a great wave of success. Not only met with substantial box office earnings, both of his more recent efforts found a workable way to employ the colorful aesthetics he's known for but also create resonant stories as well — something his early films had a difficult time doing. This tremendous run, marked only by two films, suggested Anderson's craft was maturing in a manner that would make him more broadly successful while still remaining true to the stylistic sensibilities that have made him such a renowned figure.
With that being said, it's somewhat disappointing to note that Isle of Dogs takes a considerable step back from the uproariously funny Grand Budapest Hotel and the charming romance that wasMoonrise Kingdom. Maybe it's the four-way collaboration between Anderson, the always off-kilter team Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura that made for an end product with too many hands in the same pot, or the immaculately detailed stop-motion sets that provide for precious specificity in the pictorial department but add little depth to the overall premise. Isle of Dogs artfully mixes smirk-inducing dialog, inventive visual devices, and a light commentary on the dangers of propaganda yet also manages to suggest a moral that rings true for most Anderson films: you can't decorate your way to a film that makes the most of an original opportunity.
You can, however, exhaust your concept in several different ways, in particular visual-storytelling and attention-to-detail, and it's here where Anderson's film is still capable of being a satisfying work. The film opens with narration (from Courtney B. Vance) explaining that Japan has been ravaged by an outbreak of a virus known as "dog flu," which has spread throughout the country's canine population. Megasaki City Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Nomura) subsequently signs a decree banishing all dogs to Trash Island, a distant land-mass built from the ground up by garbage. The first dog to be exiled to the island is Spots (Liev Schreiber), who belonged to 12-year-old Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), the orphaned nephew and ward of the mayor.
While Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) works to perfect a serum for the dogs, Atari responds to his relative's evil law by hijacking a small plane and crashlanding on Trash Island in hopes of finding Spots. He is quickly rescued and aided in his efforts by a self-proclaimed pack of "scary, indestructible alpha-dogs:" Chief (Bryan Cranston), a pugnacious stray with a bad attitude who assumes the leader role; Rex (Edward Norton), the intermittent voice of reason; Duke (Jeff Goldblum), a perpetual gossiper; Boss (Bill Murray), a former baseball team mascot; and King (Bob Balaban), a one-time dog-food commercial star. This primary story is often interrupted by various diversions, in the form of contextual flashbacks to the former lives of the individual dogs or the ongoing exploits of Tracy (Lady Birds's Greta Gerwig). A foreign-exchange student from Cincinnati, Tracy is determined to expose Mayor Kobayashi's unjustifiably cruel new legislation through her school-newspaper. To boot, throughout the film, Kobayashi gives passionate speeches to a packed house of Japanese constituents and politicians, while Frances McDormand voices an interpreter, who gives us the English translation.
In a humorous attempt at dismantling the congruence of interspecies communication, most of the human-dialog is in Japanese and not subtitled, or at least only when absolutely necessary (in which case, characters sometimes revert to English which demonstrates a pattern of inconsistency). The dogs speak English, as they are voiced by many of Anderson's acting mainstays, and the verisimilitude of this world is further established by juxtaposed English and Japanese interludes that note the setting or the chapter break of the film. All of these tactics are laudably different, even for a Wes Anderson project, and several visual cues — such as cross-cutting, split-screen, and picture-in-picture — do the legwork of giving a linear story visual flair. Some narrative discombobulation ensues, most notably with the flashbacks to the dogs' existences pre-Trash Island. Tracy's storyline, too, proves all but needless despite Anderson giving up on the primary thread of the alpha-dogs late in the second act to further detail Mayor Kobayashi's corruption. Rather than giving the dogs their day, so to speak, Anderson all-but abandons their heroism on Trash Island for depicting Tracy's efforts, a diversion that's far less interesting than the banter between the dogs themselves.
But for every instance where Anderson's narrative latches on to one too many threads, there's an unnecessary but charming sequence where he exercises the boundless limitations of stop-motion. Whether it be the overhead-shot of sushi preparation or a kidney transplant, our director knows how to merge the genial with the absurd in ways only he could achieve success.
Isle of Dogs also lacks the versatile humor that made Anderson's aforementioned projects so engrossing. The emphasis on whimsical surroundings that make for a surplus of eye-candy allows the viewer to get wrapped up in these dazzling and inspired world, a feat that shouldn't be overlooked, but it results in the mechanical nature and emotional distance that plagues a lot of Anderson's films to resurface. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, and even Rushmore found themselves hampered by affectless writing which quite often resisted viewers from getting within more than arm's reach of the characters. This same sort of hindrance is present in Isle of Dogs, and it results in the dogs themselves being thinly characterized as well as the room for empathy being decidedly skewed.
The difference-maker with Anderson's second venture into stop-motion animation over the course of nine-feature films is Isle of Dogs is never boring. At roughly 95 minutes, it features some of the most elaborate, if not the most inventive, visual-scheme ever to be created within the realm of the respective medium, and catches its director in a worldbuilding mood unlike any we've ever seen from him. Tristan Oliver's cinematography helps stage the perfectly symmetrical, center-focused shot, and composer Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water) adopts the hallmarks of Japanese synths and drums to show his own sonic variety that makes him one of the top individuals in the game when it comes to movie-music. While the level of engagement dips and dives and the film's humor is never is as funny as promised, Isle of Dogs is made sturdy thanks to the visionaries who know how to get the most out of this material and in turn make a beautiful showcase of the boundless ways stop-motion can captivate.
Isle of Dogs is like most second-tier Wes Anderson works. It's as good as the sum of its details, and this one adds up adequately if only producing a marginally underwhelming result given the potential of this conceit. I stand by the thought that the deadpan tone adopted by the film's canines would've been better suited for cats. Most dogs look like they would speak with an excited, unmistakably enthusiastic cadence. On the other hand, cats look like the type of creature that would expound upon the world in emotional monotone, employing the same tone of voice for vocalizing their reaction to their owner's demise as they would their contentment with their meal. Anderson always struck me as a cat person, and maybe this is the root of Isle of Dogs' shortcomings.