Reviewing Wes Anderson’s Return To Stop-Motion Animation In Isle of Dogs

by Ben Martin

I’m a film geek; which means I have favorite filmmakers. Folks whose every move I’ll follow; generally for better or worse. One writer/director whom I follow ardently is Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel). Anderson’s films don’t work for everyone, and that’s understandable. While the majority of the writer/director’s oeuvre is comedic, it’s also quite dry. Aside from that, the stories that Anderson tells tend to move at a slower pace. In fact, I’d say all of the auteur’s catalog are reminiscent of films of the late-60s-early 70s. More importantly, though, Anderson is a very visual filmmaker.
All of his work has a similar look: bright while being restrained and very set-design driven. You could pretty strip the credits from any of his films and still know that picture was made by Anderson. Beyond filmmakers, I also have a soft-spot for specific subgenres. One of the genres I adore is stop-motion/claymation animation. (Yes, I’m the guy who watches the Rank & Bass Christmas specials every year.) Thus, when I heard that Wes Anderson was returning to stop-motion animation with Isle of Dogs, I was delighted. Particularly since I’d loved his first turn at the genre with Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Set in the not-too-distant future of Nagasaki, Japan, Isle of Dogs tells the story of a boy and his dogs. After the country is ravaged by an outbreak of dog-flu, for which there is no cure, all infected canines are quarantined. All diseased dogs are sent to a place referred to as “Trash Island,” to keep the infection from spreading. There, the dogs roam among heaps of garbage, fighting for scraps. Then, one day, a young boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin) comes to the island, looking for his dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). Soon enough, a group of dogs, including Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) agree to help the boy find Spots. From there, it’s a journey as the group attempts to find not only Spots; but also a cure for dog-flu outright.

I’ll just go ahead and put it on front street. Isle of Dogs is an absolute pleasure to watch. On a visual level, the film is expertly crafted. The film’s cinematography (which was done by Tristan Oliver, who specializes in stop-motion animation photography) is a feast for the eyes. One that was cooked up to pay homage to Japanese animation styles as well as the films of Akira Kurosawa (Yojimbo). Every inch of the film’s frames contain plenty took look at. Although the titular ‘Dogs’ do draw your eye as they’re made of Alpaca wool. The film then goes beyond the eyes and to the heart. Isle of Dogs is a universal story that has something in it that every viewer can identify with on one level or another.

Alas, this isn’t to say that the film is perfect. Isle of Dogs has three detracting factors, most of which are trademarks, as mentioned earlier, of its director. As I mentioned in the opening of this review, Wes Anderson likes to make comedically dry and slower-paced pictures. Not surprisingly, this picture possesses both of these qualities. However, I think that those stylistic choices ultimately hurt this film. I found the movie was just a little too slow with a middle act that drags quite a bit.
Although the pacing may stick out a little bit more considering, I thought the film could’ve been funnier. The laughs that Isle of Dogs fetches are intelligent and low-key, but there aren’t quite enough of them for me. Furthermore, this movie is a vast ensemble piece with a star-studded cast; all of whom bring their best to bat. Unfortunately, not all of them are given enough to do. My mind immediately leaps to the character of Duke. For a dog voiced by Jeff Goldblum (Thor: Ragnarok and the upcoming Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), Duke isn’t given much to do here. Goldblum does variations on a few different lines throughout the film. I suppose that’s understandable enough when you take into account that the actor wasn’t able to make it to the recording studio to lay down what little dialogue he had, due to a scheduling obligation. Thus, Goldblum recorded his lines remotely, over the phone from England. However, the same can’t be said for the rest of the cast. The fact of the matter is that Isle of Dogs is a little overcrowded for the story it’s telling.

This is a film which I genuinely feel has the potential a four-quadrant audience. That’s because the movie in review functions on many different levels in regards to genre. Not only is Isle of Dogs a stop-motion animated comedy, but it’s also an adventure and of course, a dog flick. As such, it’s also a family film. Despite its PG-13 rating, it only contains a few mild curse words. Thus, if you have kids that are slightly older, I’d recommend taking them to see this picture; particularly if they love dogs. Keep in mind though, that this movie plays for all ages and is well-worth seeing!


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