Isle of Dogs Review: Gloriously detailed, exquisitely animated, but ultimately hollow
An excellently animated film hampered by all the detail and plot that's crammed into it
I went into Wes Anderson's second stop-motion animated film, Isle of Dogs, with high hopes. His previous animated film, Fantastic Mr Fox is, for my money, his best film -- and given his body of work, that's saying something. The medium too is uniquely suited to the style of filmmaking and sensibilities of this finicky director and his incredible attention to detail. But while Isle of Dogs does have that glorious detailing and some excellent animation--a sequence of sushi-making stands out in particular--it just doesn't work as a coherent whole. In fact, it is actually hampered by all the detail and plot that's crammed into it. The film just doesn't give us enough room to enter its world. We are kept at an arm's length throughout.
Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Greta Gerwig
The film is set in a dystopian near-future Japan where the mayor of Megasaki and his cohorts are determined to get rid of all the dogs in the city. Their ostensible reason being a dog flu that's spreading among the canine population and is in danger of affecting the humans too. The mayor, Kobayashi, signs a decree banishing all dogs to Trash Island and offers up his nephew and ward's dog, Spots, as the first exile. This nephew, Atari, steals a plane and sets off to rescue his dog. He crash-lands on the island, where he meets a pack of alpha dogs (voiced by Anderson regulars like Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, etc), who help him in his mission. The toughest of this pack is the stray dog, Chief (Breaking Bad-fame Bryan Cranston), who considers himself the de-facto leader, though he invariably ends up being the only dissenting voice when they democratically make their decisions. Despite his reluctance, Chief gets pulled into the rescue mission, helped along by the request of a female show dog called Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson in a thankless role). Meanwhile, the mayor's opponent in the upcoming elections, Professor Watanabe, finds a cure for dog flu, which the mayor rejects and does his best to keep suppressed. And then there's the American exchange student, Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), who tries to uncover the truth behind it all (of course, it has to be a white person who comes to the rescue). See what I mean by too much plot?
That's not to say, however, that the film has little to offer. There's Anderson's dependably droll sense of humour, for one. And while Isle of Dogs doesn't have the wicked sense of humour that his last film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, had, there is still a lot of wit on display. But it's more the sort of humour that makes you smile wryly than laugh out loud. And then, there are the voice actors, who are all as good as you'd expect, with Cranston especially perfect as Chief (a note here - Anderson has chosen to have all the dogs speak English, while the humans speak their native tongue). And of course, the gorgeous animation, which I've already mentioned before. The dogs especially are rendered amazingly well. So despite not being fully engaged, you won't really find yourself bored either.
Isle of Dogs has a lot going on and multiple viewings, I suspect, are mandatory to unpack everything Anderson has filled it with. But I am in no hurry to watch it again.