ISLE OF DOGS (Dir. Wes Anderson, 2018)
In more than one interview, Wes Anderson has specified that his latest stop motion animated film (his second following 2009’s THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX) was largely influenced by legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, and in a very Wes Andersony twist, those classic Rankin Bass Christmas specials like “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reigndeer.”
It’s a suitably quirky combination for the suitably quirky writer/director/producer, and for the most part it works, but I couldn’t help from thinking that the execution of ISLE OF DOGS is a bit too mechanical to really take hold.
That’s not saying I didn’t enjoy a great deal of the film as it’s well made, has a rich voice cast, pleasing visuals, and some amusing ideas. And I know that the criticism “too mechanical” is an odd one to make as the machinery of Anderson’s style has been detectable from the beginning of his career in BOTTLE ROCKET, but I still found too many beats to be predictable, too many times that gags felt forced, and too many moments that were supposed to be emotional (I think) that made me think ‘meh.’
The narrative, which is set in Japan 20 years in the future, concerns a 12-year old named Atari Kobayashi (voiced by Koyu Rankin) who travels to Trash Island, where all of the country’s dogs have been banished because of a canine flu virus, to find his lost dog Spots.
Atari is helped in his quest by five mangy dogs: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray, and Chief (Bryan Cranston). You see, an opening title tells us
Cranston’s Chief is the most dominant dog, and has the most interesting back story as he scoffs at the formerly domesticated others as he’s a stray saying things like “You're talking like a bunch of housebroken…pets.”
Meanwhile, in subplot B, Greta Gerwig voices a pro-dog American exchange student Tracy Walker, who has a crush on Atari and leads a campaign against his evil uncle, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), whilst finding out from Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono (voiced by Yoko Ono – that’s right) that a cure has been suppressed by the dog hating Mayor.
You got that? Well, it doesn’t matter as Anderson treats all these plot points so nonchalantly that they hold very little weight. I mean, that’s fine – everyone hits their marks, melancholy music plays, and it’s all played for maximum cuteness. If you’re a hardcore Wes Anderson fan, I bet this will be like the cinematic equivalent of crack cocaine, but being a more casual fan (I’ve only RUSHMORE once!), it was a pleasant but unremarkable experience. It felt like a great production design, and cast looking for a great movie.
But whatever your stance – don’t go see it for its cast. Sure, one of the most striking things in the trailers, posters, etc. is the sheer amount of its star power – Cranston, Norton, Murray, Goldblum, Frances McDormand, Liev Schreiber, Harvey Keitel, Scarlett Johanssen, Tilda Swinton, Angelica Huston, and Fisher Stevens as Scrap (I so want that to be the new “and Jerry Mathers as the Beaver”) – but beyond Cranston, Gerwig, Norton and a few others, most of these famous folks don’t make much of a mark. I can’t remember a single moment that Murray owned, and I bet Johanssen recorded her lines in less than 10 minutes.
Although it felt a bit off to me, ISLE OF DOGS is not without its charms. The attention to detail (one of Anderson’s strengths) in the animation is superbly presented (despite how dire the landscape of Trash Island), and there’s some earned warmth between a few of the characters. I also loved how there were clouds of flailing limbs popping in and out when the dogs fought like in old cartoons.
It has come under some fire for criticisms of its appropriation of Japanese culture, but it never struck me as being anything but a respectful homage - except for the fact that Japanese-speaking characters aren't given subtitles while a opening disclaimer tells us that all of the dog’s “barks have been rendered into English.”
So his second stab at stop motion animation isn’t as funny, poignant, or memorable as his first, THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX, but Anderson has yet again succeeded in making something that nobody can do as well: make another Wes Anderson film. It’ll more than do until the next one.