“Isle of Dogs” is cute, and very little else

Illustration by Iain Duffus .

Few filmmakers have created their own niche like Wes Anderson has. Directing and writing his own movies for more than 20 years, Anderson is well-known for his perfectionist filmmaking and comically stilted dialogue mixed with gut-punch emotion.

All of Anderson’s films have the same dollhouse cinematic style, which proved successful in the stop-motion film, “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Anderson returns to this style of animation with “Isle of Dogs,” a visually impressive film that is ultimately held back by Anderson’s indulgences.

Taking place in the near future, Japan is overrun by dogs with a contagious disease. Mayor Kobayashi deports all infected dogs to a trash wasteland island where the canines must fend for themselves. Soon after, Atari, a young pilot, crash lands on the island and searches for his dog, Spots, with help from a group of the island’s dogs.

“Fantastic Mr. Fox” was the first Wes Anderson film I saw, and I soon became a fan of his writing and filmmaking style. He often deals with themes of father and son relationships and outsiders trying to find their place and growing up.

That film stood out with its uniquely detailed stop-motion animation. While other films like “Coraline” try to hide the flaws in the animation of objects and characters, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” indulges in these uncanny details. This makes for a charming style that works perfectly with Anderson’s clever writing and controlled cinematography.

“Isle of Dogs” retains the charming and detailed animation, but on a much larger scale. Tons of disposed items like food and bottles litter the island, while Japan itself is vibrant and artistic. Anderson’s ability to expertly frame a scene leads to intricate and beautiful shots. It’s always a treat to see this style of animation on the big screen and the end result is a spectacle.

The models for the dogs themselves are quite detailed, with visible individual hairs, bones, scars and even general disfigurements littering the cast of dogs.

The script is well-written, with Anderson’s iconic conversational style and detached voice acting leading to some hilarious moments. The dogs are all voiced by English-speaking actors, who do a good job, but rarely stand out. Bryan Cranston as Chief gives the best performance, but even he feels more like a voice than an actor.

Sadly, Atari is the only human character with any emotional depth, while Cranston’s Chief is the only dog the audience gets to know. The characters and plot are disappointingly light, making it difficult to care about anything beyond the relationship between these two characters.

Every other character, besides translators, speak in Japanese without subtitles, unless provided by the plot. This is used not only as a comedic device, since the dogs don’t speak Japanese, but also to connect the audience more to dogs as audience avatars.

This choice does heighten the film’s style, since we can still understand what’s going on without the dialogue and opens more avenues for interesting interactions, but it does beg the question of why “Isle of Dogs” is set in Japan. I originally hoped that Anderson would tie the foreign setting more into the plot and the themes, but it seems to only be used as window dressing to decorate the story of friendship and growing up.

While the imagery is beautiful and the homages to older Japanese cinema don’t go unnoticed, it feels like Anderson is concerned only with the perceived look of Japan influencing his film, and not how the reality of Japan could change his film. I admit the references and iconography help to make the film more stylish, but it ultimately feels hollow.

By the end, I wasn’t exactly sure why Anderson wanted to make this film, and why a team of talented animators would spend so much time and effort animating this. It’s a fun film that hits as many Anderson tropes as it can, but it never strives to be anything beyond a cute dog movie done with unique animation.

“Isle of Dogs” is an entertaining film worth seeing in a theater. It also makes it one of Anderson’s weaker films, as it has very little going for it beyond the visuals. Still, I had a great time watching it, but it’s difficult not to be disappointed when there was so much potential.  

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