It makes me sad that quality cinema is so often inaccessible to mainstream audiences.
As of this writing, there is only one theater in the entire Miami Valley that is screening “Isle of Dogs.” I literally drove past other theaters to get to it. Although the film is set to open wider in weeks to come, it seems like a real shame that such strong efforts are often relegated to such slow or limited releases in the weeks that matter most.
“Isle of Dogs” was a supremely creative piece of work that I really enjoyed. It’s understandable why a common moviegoer might be a little put off by it at first glance, and I could see those concerns permeating the brains of the powers that be over at Fox Searchlight. All industry is driven by profit, of course, and unconventional movies seem to touch nerves for their general unpredictability when it comes to collecting that profit. Confidently, though, I can state that “Isle of Dogs” is nothing to be afraid of for anybody.
A simple explanation of the narrative is, surprisingly, sort of a challenge. After a metropolitan city bans all canines to an island offshore due to a supposedly dangerous outbreak of illness, a 12-year-old boy named Atari ventures to the island to rescue his loyal companion, Spots. Upon his arrival, he is greeted by a ragtag group of pooches who aim to help Atari locate his pet at any cost.
Again, this is putting the narrative simply. The story proved a lot more expansive than I expected going in, and I mean that as a compliment. There’s a lot of interesting social commentary at work in “Isle of Dogs,” with witty allegories involving corrupt politicians, corporate monopolies, and the general reach of elitist dogma. Every adult human living in the city of Megasaki seems, in some way, dirty. The more time we spend with Atari and the dogs, the more that feels like an intentional motif.
Also, a choice was made (which I’ve actually heard other reviewers criticize) for all the human characters to speak in Japanese, with translations only offered under special circumstances. The dogs, however, speak perfect English. That choice struck this viewer as a very profound one — it serves to accurately highlight the communication barrier humans have with their dogs (though in reverse), and it also serves to highlight the purity of the film’s canine characters. This is the dogs’ story, and Anderson demands with this use of language that all sympathies veer toward the dogs, as they are literally the only characters we can understand.
For the film’s voice talent, Wes Anderson has managed to nab Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Scarlett Johansson, Greta Gerwig, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, and Liev Schreiber. These are just off the top of my head — I’m positive there’s more I’m forgetting. The marquee could basically read ‘starring everyone.’
You don’t get an elite ensemble of that magnitude unless you’re doing something right as an artist — an interesting notion, considering that this is not the first time by any stretch that Anderson has gotten together a cast of this range and charisma. It’s almost as though that is the thing he’s doing right — building relationships with dozens of distinct character actors and then carving out little niches for each one in the nooks and crannies of his ongoing filmography. It makes each of his films not only a team effort, but a celebration of all who show up to participate. So many names are attached to these projects, a Wes Anderson movie now just seems like a low-key Hollywood party (set out-of-town, of course).
And I’d be remiss not to give emphasis to the film’s visual style. I never thought I’d arrive to this place, but I’ve really grown to love stop-motion animation. When it’s good, it calls to mind the preferences I have toward practical effects over CGI — there’s something transportative about what you’re seeing onscreen being actually physically there.
Anderson already achieved great success with this medium in 2009’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” but he manages to pull out all the stops (pun intended) even more here. A watchful eye will detect that every single frame featuring these characters is slightly different from the last. For example, single strands of fur are tousled about in the breeze during every frame set outdoors, which itself is an enormous testament to the care and detail this team took to making these creatures not only believable as characters, but also adherent to the laws of physics.
Having said all that, the stop-motion medium is beautifully suited for this director’s preferences for camera placement. For those who don’t know, Wes Anderson has become famous for the flatly composited symmetry of his shots. More often than not, the characters or important elements onscreen are either uncannily centered or lined up in a perfect horizontal line. It’s as though each and every shot was taken from a photo hung over a mantle. This is not even going into Anderson’s unorthodox color palettes or eccentric character wardrobes or his weirdly stark dialogue.
The point, though, is that Wes Anderson is a director seeking to create psychologically satisfying images in every single shot of his films, which makes one wonder why he wouldn’t work in the stop-motion format all the time. The amount of visual control he would have over this medium would be unparalleled, and seems like it would be a dream come true for a director with such a consistent style. I daresay — if Wes Anderson chose only to produce stop-motion content from this point forward, I wouldn’t blame him, nor would I be disappointed.
Where does it rank in Wes Anderson’s filmography? Probably somewhere in the middle, but that’s still a very safe place to be — it basically guarantees the film as “good-at-worst.”
In conclusion, “Isle of Dogs” is worth a shot, even if you choose to wait until home video, although I hope few people choose to wait that long. It only takes a brief scan of 2018’s movie landscape to realize other films occupying theater screens aren’t much more inspired — they’re just safer. I cringe at the thought of all the people who were legitimately curious about “Isle of Dogs,” but instead chose to hit up the likes of “Truth or Dare” or “I Feel Pretty” this weekend, not because they looked like better movies, but because they looked more digestable.
A common throughline I’ve taken from every Wes Anderson film experience is that even if a film by a talented auteur doesn’t knock it out of the park, it’s still memorable for its efforts and is still likely to leave viewers feeling like they’re in good hands. “Isle of Dogs” falls into that camp; luckily, it’s a pretty good movie, too.