Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Liev Schreiber, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura, Greta Gerwig, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Akira Ito, Ken Watanabe, Yoko Ono, Courtney B. Vance
Stop-motion animation is always a nice change of pace in an industry that generally favours live-action and/or computer graphics in order to tell stories. With the past success of stop-motion production companies such as Aardman (Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run, Early Man) Laika (Corpse Bride, Coraline, The Boxtrolls), Melodrama Pictures (Mary and Max, Harvie Krumpet), ShadowMachine (Robot Chicken) and of course the work of the great Ray Harryhausen, the need to keep this beautifully artistic form of animation alive is more than important, it’s necessary. Wes Anderson’s second stop-motion film, after 2009’s Fantastic Mr Fox, is another animal-based fantasy-adventure that utilises the arguably obsolete medium to create something new and original that now holds the record for the longest stop-motion animation (beating Coraline by two minutes). All well and good, but does this latest hand-made production live up to the reputations of its predecessors, or is it closer to a pile of doggy doo-doo?
Isle of Dogs is a futuristic tale set in Japan that sees all dogs banished by the Mayor of Megasaki City, Kobayashi (Nomura), to Trash Island after an outbreak of dog flu. A scientist, Professor Watanabe (Ito), says he can have a cure in six months, but he is ignored by Kobayashi. Spots (Schreiber), a dog assigned as security detail to Atari (Rankin), the orphan nephew of Kobayashi, is the first dog to be banished to the island. Six months on, Atari decides to rescue his canine pal and so takes himself off to the island, wherein he meets a pack of tame, house-trained dogs who want to help him find Spots. All the while, a young foreign exchange student in Megasaki, Tracy Walker (Gerwig), suspects a conspiracy when things start to go awry after a cure is found, and she launches herself into an investigation that could affect the future of the dogs on Trash Island.
As far as the animation goes, it’s charmingly done and does a great service to the stop-motion form. The attention to detail, from the movements of the human characters and the animals to their intricate features, is smooth and very expertly crafted. The whole aesthetic of the film is also very pleasing indeed: Anderson makes almost every shot symmetrical in appearance, with everything in the shots balanced across the screen. It’s also very rhythmic in the movement of the characters and the editing, sometimes going along with the beat of the soundtrack, sometimes to their own inaudible beat. At least, it feels pleasing for the first half of the film. After a while it starts to feel somewhat tiresome, like it’s gotten too uniform. Perhaps it’s down to the restrictions of shooting in stop-motion, perhaps it’s down to Anderson’s own choice in direction, either way it doesn’t feel right for the direction the film takes. As it becomes more emotional in following Atari’s search for Spots, particularly as he grows closer to a dog named Chief (Cranston), it feels like the shots and editing should smoothen and become less rigid. The emotional turn is still there, thanks to the vocal performances and animation, but the direction makes it difficult to empathise with the characters.
On the subject of vocal performances, they’re all quite varied. The main pack of dogs, Rex, King, Duke and Boss, voiced by Norton, Balaban, Goldblum and Murray, respectively, are all fairly monotonous in their dialogue. At first this contributes to the comedic route the screenplay takes them down, but as the film progresses the dialogue starts to flatten and it becomes a bit too easy to zone out when listening to them. Cranston as Chief, however, has a much better flow, probably thanks to Cranston’s background as a decent character actor through his comedic background in work such as Malcom in the Middle and Rock of Ages. His scenes keep the audience engaged, especially when paired with bilingual Canadian-Japanese actor Koyu Rankin as Atari. Despite Atari’s dialogue being ninety-five per cent Japanese, the emotion conveyed through the voice acting and the animation means everything is still understandable. Granted his dialogue is at times translated via Spots, but when it isn’t, it’s easy enough to follow.
A good portion of dialogue is in Japanese and most of it is translated via characters or the occasional subtitles. A lot of viewers and reviewers have taken some offence to this, especially whilst the dogs get to speak English and even do some translating from Japanese to English. Many have also not overly enjoyed the depiction of Japanese culture. But the truth is it’s an English film based on Japanese culture, and so English is going to be the dominant language as English-speakers are likely to be the main audience. Anderson’s love for the culture is also pretty obvious throughout the film, with his attention to detail and throwing in many Japanese-specific references, such as some of the artwork and some sumo wrestling. Anderson even provides some scenes where there’s little to no translation, meaning all we have to go on is the visuals in order to understand what’s going on, letting the characters control the scenes.
Isle of Dogs is a mostly visually pleasing film that injects bouts of comedy in all the right places, even if the story and shots start to become rather dreary. It has an emotional heart that imbues the audience enough to stick with it and root for Atari and the dogs. It boasts a strong cast list that’s a veritable who’s-who of top Hollywood talent, even if it doesn’t quite utilise the range, from comedic to emotional and dramatic, of its vocally-talented actors. Anderson’s film will likely entertain the majority of audiences, even for a brief time, but it doesn’t feel like it’s going to be anywhere near the kind of film that he will be known for a couple of decades from now. Give it another five to ten years and he could come up with something in a similar vein, but better. Perhaps that’s a controversial thought, but it can’t be too bad to expect more from a director, particularly one who showcases his talents as a director very well but could do with working on his strength as a screenwriter. The ability is there, but so far Anderson’s screenplay bark doesn’t quite match that of his directorial bite.