Wes Anderson’s last stop-motion film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, was really good. Isle of Dogs is his first since animated film then, and Anderson once again proves that he’s a master of the genre. This deeply rich movie is relevant, contains great performances and conveys this all with gorgeous animation. This is a movie worth watching, one filled with meaning and soul.
Isle of Dogs takes place after man’s canine friends were removed from Japan and placed on an island to die of a plague. One young man decides to journey to the island to re-unite with his dog and comes across a pack of other such animals that help him in his journey. A simple plot, but there’s more to this story than meets the eye.
The high concept of this film deals with political corruption and the importance of a free press. While I cannot be sure if Anderson did this intentionally, this aspect of the film is relevant – though I think it always has been – and is all the more entertaining for that. The importance of news, and the truth, is shown throughout the film as numerous characters partake in gossip. The rumors are typically shown as being a misrepresentation of the truth and are also used to convey the foolishness of certain characters. Besides the high concept, at its core this is a film about a boy and his dog. Now the dog in question is not limited to one, but the end result is a deep and complex relationship that forms over the course of the film. It is something the audience can invest in, and a relate-able perspective from which we can view the story’s somewhat fantastical setting
The film’s story plays out like a fable, where the characters are set on a quest while avoiding the machinations of an evil figure. The world is similar to your own, especially in the topics it touches on, but is also very removed. The dogs are anthropomorphized through their use of human speech – though to humans they sound like human speech. They have their own complex thoughts, troubled pasts and class status. Isle of Dogs can at times seem like a children’s movie, which it really isn’t, and this is due to the story-telling choices employed by Anderson. It contains a moral lesson that is easily translatable to situations outside the theater and it’s own fictional Japan. Due to this there is something magical about this movie that leaves you feeling good about the world when the credits role, that there is hope even in the darkest of times.
Isle of Dogs fable like structure is also very funny, with Anderson’s dead pan humor hitting the mark almost every time. This humor is not for everyone, but the film knows its intended audience and never panders once. Each joke or comedic moment is brilliant, and will leave each viewer satisfied. Anderson’s comedy was always eccentric, and does not have the wide spread appeal of sophomoric humor like TV’s Family Guy. However, if that is your thing, this film will have you laughing quite a bit.
The film is set in Japan and though most of the characters speak Japanese, the film isn’t littered with sub-titles. In some film they can be pester viewers who have to alternate between looking at them as well as the images being presented on screen. That doesn’t mean they’re terrible, but an entire film with subtitles isn’t the same as being able understanding what’s being said on screen. What can be even worse is watching a film where none of the human characters – save Greta Gerwig – speak any English. Anderson’s film is set in Japan and the characters do not conveniently use simple English terms nor speak it fluently. Instead he cleverly uses situation in which translators would be needed as well as the character’s body language to let us who do not speak Japanese, know what they are saying. This makes the film immediately stand out among it’s peers and makes it a uniquely engaging viewing experience.
As in most of his films, Anderson recruits a cast that perfectly deliver the scripted lines to great effect. Cranston’s voice work is impeccable, with the actor provided the appropriate sense of world weariness to Chief. He is the film’s main protagonist, as he is the lead canine character and Atari are roped into Chief’s journey. Atari is there primarily to serve Chief’s arc and doesn’t really have much of one himself. He essentially serves that role as well as instigating the events of the movie. That being said, the flashbacks that explore his relationship with Spot are quite moving and help convey to the audience why Atari is taking the risk of disobeying the government. The rest of Chief’s pack are highly entertaining, each brought to life by incredible comedic talent. Murray, Norton, Balaban, and Goldblum are incredibly entertaining; each actor delivers their lines with perfect execution. Their introduction scene is one of the movie’s comedic highlights and the best example of Wes Anderson’s brand of humor. None of these characters is more significant than the other, but they each bring a sense of morbid joy to the film and have some of the best comedic lines. Gerwig’s character is central to the action and her performance is great and problematic white savior elements aside (that’s another article in itself), she does a fantastic job in the film. Her character is assertive and uncompromising, with Gerwig expertly conveying this in her performance. Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson are given small roles in the film, but each do an excellent job in their voice work.
The stop-motion animation in this movie is beautiful, and perfectly captures the fairy-tale like storytelling being employed by Anderson’s screenplay. The animation is fluid and rich with incredibly detailed sets as well as amazing character models. The detail visible in the figures is remarkable and makes each scene a joy to look at. Anderson’s filmography always included gorgeous cinematography with symmetrical composition in each shot. Even the credits are symmetrical, and this stylistic flourish makes for a unique aesthetic experience that only Anderson can provide.
Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is a joy to watch, and it’s a rather innovative way to handle a film where the human cast does not speak English. Over-all a visually rich viewing experience that captures the imagination with rich world building and heart-warming moments. This film is Anderson at his best, and it’s a film worth watching.
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