Wes Anderson isn’t my favorite filmmaker, but I really do look forward to his films every time they come along, as they’re always refreshing takes on film in an age of drastic nihilism. “Isle of Dogs” is Anderson’s second foray into the world of animated film after “Fantastic Mr. Fox” in 2009. This time, Anderson wrote his own original story for “Isle of Dogs,” with a sharp acerbic twist to it we can only come to expect from Anderson’s film of any format. Anderson’s last film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was his best work to date, and one of the finest films to come across this decade so far, but when following up a masterwork such as that, is the pressure on to deliver? In the case of “Isle of Dogs,” I find its animated format to exempt Anderson from the pressures of delivering anything remotely similar to “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” but something of a different beast altogether (no pun intended).
Set 20 years in the future, the (fictional) Japanese city of Megasaki faces an outbreak of Snout Fever and Dog Flu, both contagious diseases started in dogs before spreading to humans. The cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi banishes all dogs from the city to the distant Trash Island for quarantine. Six months after the quarantine, the mayor’s ward and nephew, Atari Kobayashi, travels and crash lands on the island to find his former dog and bodyguard Spots to bring him home, against his uncle’s wishes. Stranded on the island, a group of five dogs, Chief, Rex, King, Boss and Duke assist Atari in finding his lost friend. Meanwhile, back on Megasaki, an American exchange student, Tracy, stages protests against the increasingly corrupt Kobayashi for treating the dogs of the city in such a cruel way.
Out of the gate, I’ll go ahead and say that “Isle of Dogs” didn’t do it for me, which broke my heart, as I wanted the attractively made film to capture me in ways other than aesthetic. When it comes to an Anderson aesthetic, “Isle of Dogs” has it in droves, but I soon found that it’s not just the quirky filmmaking style on the outside that makes Anderson’s films so charming, but more so in how the story unfolds in conjunction with the filmmaking style. It’s a mutually exclusive relationship, where when one falters, the entire thing loses its overall effect. It’s a shame really, because “Isle of Dogs” might just be Anderson’s most…well…Anderson film to date.
Like most Anderson films, the cast (in this case, voice cast) is jam-packed full of stars that are familiar with Anderson’s work, including but not limited to Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Courtney B. Vance, Fisher Stevens, Harvey Keitel, Frank Wood, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Yoko Ono, Bob Balaban, Liev Schreiber, and Scarlett Johansson. This impressive cast doesn’t even include the vast Japanese voice cast that the film entails (a point I will get to in a minute), but like every other film of his, Anderson utilizes this cast wonderfully with some really unique, yet recognizable ways in bringing the cast about in a way that’s enjoyable, but not so noticeable that it takes away from the film.
The biggest issue I had with “Isle of Dogs” is that it’s dull. the story at hand didn’t hold much weight for me, as it constantly felt like it was setting up the story to get into something bigger, which it never ended up doing. Overall, it felt like a really bloated first act to a film that never came to be, and when you keep introducing new characters throughout the film in such a way that they become important to the story, then we’re constantly just trying to make ends meet with so much, yet so little going on.
“Isle of Dogs” has garnered a bit of controversy over its usage of a Japanese setting and themes in a film directed by an American white man. I’m a bit on the fence with this, as I don’t find an American white man directing a film in Japan to be much of an issue, but Anderson’s portrayal of Japanese culture is very much a Wikipedia version of the culture from someone who visited Japan once. I never got the feeling that the film had to take place in Japan, but it was rather used as a quirky backdrop to set this film apart from anything else. Nothing about this film feels contingent on the Japanese setting, and it really does feel like Anderson is using Japan for the “quirk” factor of it all, and it honestly doesn’t work here either. I don’t think it was malicious in any way, but it doesn’t excuse a lot of it.
I wish I had more to say about “Isle of Dogs,” as I typically hold reviewing Anderson’s films in reverence, but the sheer inconsequentiality of the film simply makes me feel indifferent to it more than anything else. It’s incredibly pretty and the voice cast is spectacular, but beyond that, the story within the film is tepid to say the least, and for a film this unique looking, the level of engagement I had with it was incredibly low, leading to its short runtime feeling nearly double its length. This film is a massive disappointment over anything else, but I don’t think it’s a lost cause for everyone to go see it. I think those really attuned to Anderson’s work, or even those who know nothing of him will enjoy the film for its charming elements, but for someone falling directly in the middle of the Anderson train like myself, it just didn’t hit enough checkpoints on either side to ever win me over.
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Courtney B. Vance, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Harvey Keitel, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schreiber, Bob Balaban, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Akira Ito, Akira Takayama, F. Murray Abraham, Yojiro Noda, Mari Natsuki, Yoko Ono, Frank Wood.
Runtime: 101 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent images.
Fox Searchlight Pictures and Indian Paintbrush present, an American Empirical Picture by Wes Anderson, “Isle of Dogs”