Review – Isle of Dogs

I was beginning to think I wasn’t going to be able to find a way to catch Wes Anderson’s latest film Isle of Dogs until my local theater went and surprised me by getting it over the weekend.  Truth be told, I’ve never been a huge Wes Anderson fan.  I don’t outright dislike his work, but I’m not as over-the-moon about it as I would like to be, either.  He has some fun ideas, but my biggest issue with his style has been in the way he directs his casts.  Anderson prefers a quirky aesthetic and guides his actors into performances that skirt reality and instead tend towards the downplayed and emotionless.  Monotone delivery and dead, lifeless eyes aren’t uncommon from a performer in a Wes Anderson film and it just rubs me the wrong way, feeling inauthentic.  Still, as a true film fanatic, I can recognize his talents and I’m always willing to give his work a chance.  It’s not like he’s the Wayans brothers, or anything.

In animation, however, it’s obvious that those creative choices that irk me in live-action could work much better, so I was interested to see what Isle of Dogs would bring to the table.  When watching real actors work on screen, I expect them to (at least attempt to) act like real people.  I understand many others feel differently, and that’s okay.  I’m not trying to sway anyone; that’s just my personal preference.  But when watching animation, all bets are off.  A director like Anderson who prefers to create his own little worlds that are more detached from the one we currently inhabit than any comic book or science fiction film can really go nuts and nothing will feel out of place.

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That’s exactly what happens here.  The matter-of-fact vocal delivery that is synonymous with Anderson’s work is supported by vibrant and expressive characters that are beautifully animated and simply fun to watch.  There’s a dissonance between the visual and the auditory that allows for a perfect balance to be struck and the effect that bothers me so much in Anderson’s live-action work is completely negated here.

The film has a casual humor to it that will fly far over the heads of any viewers who allow their attention to drift.  Some of it is laugh-out-loud funny, most of it is at least vastly amusing.  Anderson never stoops to using people’s natural affinity for dogs to elicit manufactured (i.e. cheap) emotion.  There’s no pandering and he challenges himself to create a connection with his audience without taking the easy road.

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At this, Anderson succeeds.  The film, which follows young Japanese boy Atari as he searches for his long lost dog Spots amidst the island to which all dogs have been banished, is populated by endearing characters who are easy to love and a story that is easy to relate to.  Said story is an obvious allegory for immigration but if one wishes to simply focus on the surface narrative of a boy and his dog, it still works beautifully.  Love is love, and Anderson tells a sweet and simple story about one of the purest forms of love there is.

I will say that kids will likely be enticed by the marketing and, while the film is perfectly suitable for them (there’s one use of the word “bitch” in context and a faraway shot of an operation.  Aside from those potential issues, it’s fine.), most will not enjoy themselves.  The themes and execution are simply too sophisticated for most typical children to either follow or to appreciate.  If you’re familiar with Anderson’s work, you don’t need me to tell you that you should expect as much.  But those who aren’t as familiar should take that into consideration.

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But as much substance as there is to the film, and as adeptly presented as it is, I can’t go without discussing the technical achievements that Anderson and his team also pull off.  This film is absolutely drop-dead gorgeous.  The locations and environments command the gaze of the viewer.  The attention to detail is astounding.  The stop-motion animation is remarkable, even allowing for the wind to blow through the fur of our canine companions.  The whole production is visually stunning and will absolutely dazzle on 4K.  There can be no question that Anderson has style.

I can’t help but wonder if Anderson was inspired to make Isle of Dogs after seeing Laika Studios’ Kubo and the Two Strings.  If you don’t know (and how can you be one of my readers and not know, by now?), Kubo is a stop-motion animation film about a young Japanese boy searching for a way to connect with his lost family.  Now, Kubo was an instant classic and, as much as I enjoyed Isle of Dogs, it doesn’t have the same level of artistry, poignancy, or inspiration that Kubo had.  But that’s not meant to be disparaging; on the contrary, my intention is to draw a favorable comparison between the two films.  And if I’m drawing a favorable comparison to Kubo, you know I liked the film.

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I haven’t seen every single Wes Anderson film, but of the ones I have, Isle of Dogs is my clear favorite.  It’s charming, fun, and light, but it also addresses humanity’s tendency to cast out those we deem as troublesome, rather than moving to help and incorporate them.  Underneath the film’s attractive presentation resides a metaphor for inclusivity wrapped in a Japanese fable.  Fans of Anderson, prestige filmmaking, and – of course – dogs should find plenty to enjoy here.  I personally would like to see Anderson stick to animation more often but, no matter what he offers audiences next time, he’s earned another chance from me.

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