There’s a lot to love in Wes Anderson’s return to the world of stop-motion animation. With an outstanding voice cast of Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray and Greta Gerwig, some beautiful animation work and a story revolving around dogs, this film is destined to please many audiences. The detailed world-building and visuals showcase the work of a masterful filmmaker, Anderson perfecting his quirks with each release. Isle of Dogs, however, exposes some of Anderson’s flaws that haven’t appeared since The Life Aquatic or The Darjeeling Limited. While these films are not bad by any means, Isle of Dogs joins them at the lower end of Anderson’s repertoire as fundamental problems in the story, script and character development prevent the film from being what it could be.
Isle of Dogs’ animation is intricate and absolutely stunning. Each setting and backdrop feels completely real and Anderson’s film relishes in the small details of each location. Consequently, the world-building and lore is as good as any previous Anderson film and I’d go as far to say it’s his most imaginative work to date. Set in the near-future, dystopian fictional city of “Megasaki”, Japan, Isle of Dogs manages to convince you that this world is alive and breathing; many of its locations are distinguished by different colour palettes and textures giving each of them a unique character. There are so many small aspects that would need a second viewing to fully appreciate. It’s clear that every frame of animation has an incomprehensible amount of thought, love and detail put into it. Anderson thrives in the medium of stop-motion animation as he’s able to curate each aspect of his seemingly endless imagination.
The technical and visual aspects are where Isle of Dogs generally shines. From the scrappy and layered character design of the dogs, the comedic editing style and nods to Japanese culture, the film’s aesthetics are fully-realised. Japanese culture is highlighted in Alexandre Desplat’s score in which he utilises Japanese musical scales and chord progressions alongside some traditional instruments. Moreover, one particular motif in the soundtrack is remarkably similar to Ramin Djawadi’s ‘Dracarys’ from Game of Thrones. This became a small distraction for me just because of how frequently this particular part of Desplat’s score was played, but it wasn’t enough to dampen the effect of the soundtrack by any means. From a technical and directing standpoint, Isle of Dogs is one of Anderson’s best.
Where the film falters, however, is in the writing. This is one of Anderson’s weakest scripts to date. Many of the characters are one-dimensional and interchangeable, and I get the impression that you’re meant to care about them just because they’re dogs. The only character with somewhat of an arc is Chief, voiced brilliantly and emotionally by Bryan Cranston. When contrasting Cranston’s character, Chief, with the rest, it is not only the writing that sets him apart as the voice-acting also seems to be a stylistic issue at odds with the rest of the film. Anderson is known for including deadpan delivery as part of his style and this usually works in live-action because you can see the expressions of the actor’s faces. Oddly enough, it’s also effective in Fantastic Mr Fox as the animation exaggerates their facial expressions. In Isle of Dogs, however, the dialogue is still deadpan and the animation doesn’t accommodate for this, making every line of dialogue sound cold, detached and stilted. While maybe not initially an issue, this tone seems at odds with the emotional “boy and his dog” type of story the film is going for. The result is a story which feels tonally inconsistent with itself.
The script is also very heavy-handed in its exposition, to the point where the audience is bluntly told information without developing the characters and we’re just expected to care. While sometimes there is good visual story-telling, especially between Chief and Atari, at other times and especially during the political scenes, information is just blankly relayed. The film is split into four chapters with a prologue at the start and this exposition-heavy approach works for the opening half of the film. By the time it’s chapter four, characters are still just telling the audience what we need to know. The dialogue, especially when comparing it to Anderson’s recent film The Grand Budapest Hotel, is bland. The script lacks tension because the characters are not fully-developed, the dialogue is nowhere near as smart as Anderson’s other films and, perhaps most importantly, it lacks heart. For a story about the relationship with “man’s best friend”, the film feels unbelievably cold and calculated, taking more time to tell the audience how to feel as opposed to showing us how we should feel.
Just as a quick aside: Yoko Ono plays a scientist called Yoko Ono and it’s very distracting. There is no punchline and the film makes it very obvious that it’s Yoko Ono. I’m not sure why this had to be included other than maybe for comedy, but then there’s no joke to it – it’s just Yoko Ono.
Isle of Dogs is still an enjoyable film and is worth seeing just for the sheer amount of creativity packed into its one-hundred-minute runtime. It’s certainly not up there with Wes Anderson’s best, but it’s still an incredible achievement from a technical standpoint. Others may find a deeper connection than I did and if someone was to say they adored it I can fully understand why. For me, however, the film felt at odds with itself and I didn’t feel particularly invested in what was happening. Wes Anderson has crafted a beautiful world full of its own eccentricities and wonders but has seemingly forgotten to do the same with its inhabitants.
Objective Score: 4/5
Subjective Score: 3/5
Overall Score: 7/10
Words by Dan Lyons