“Isle of Dogs” reminds me of a mountain of rich chocolate ice cream: it’s tantalizing to look at and you can’t wait to dive in, but after you get two thirds of the way through, brain freeze and the overwhelming sweetness cause you to push the dish away. The cloying saccharine feeling comes in the form of the film’s script, a disappointing case of too many cooks in the kitchen (with four “story by” credits, including director / screenwriter Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura), but the cherry on top is Anderson’s signature meticulous visual organization and balanced, proportional order that won’t disappoint his longtime fans.
This beautiful looking film is absolutely pitch perfect in the classic Anderson style, brimming with a symmetrical, colorful, indie hipster aesthetic. Everything here is astonishingly stunning to look at, from the charming stop-motion animation jerk of a dog’s strut to brief forays into chromatic-hued, hand drawn sketches to a character’s perfectly lopsided freckles. This movie is not only stunning, it’s the best looking film since last year’s “Blade Runner 2049” (although in a completely different, winsomely twee way).
Complementing the knockout visuals is a charming story about a young boy’s undying devotion for his dog and a dog’s everlasting loyalty to his master. It’s a real love letter to our four-legged friends and may bring tears to the eyes of anyone who has ever lived with a companion animal.
The film is set in Japan with a large amount of dialogue spoken in the native tongue (the barks from the dogs, a title card teases, have been translated into English). After an outbreak of canine flu leads to all dogs being quarantined on Trash Island, a heroic young boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin) commandeers a plane and crash lands on the island to rescue his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). Atari seeks help from a pack of exiled canines including Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Rex (Edward Norton), and Chief (Bryan Cranston). As the gang of misfits traverse the landscape and news of their adventure reaches the mainland, they inspire a group of pro-dog student activists to help uncover and expose an evil government conspiracy.
The voice talent is tremendous and no one, not even Murray or Frances McDormand as a narrator called Interpreter Nelson, feels like a case of stunt casting. Cranston again shows there’s nothing he can’t do well, lending a stark and poignant empathy as the voice of Chief. Harvey Keitel, as penitent, remorseful dog Gondo who is forced to turn into something horrific as an act of mercy, is another surprising standout in a crowded cast of accomplished performers. (The time to remind parents that this is not a film for the kiddos is now). The only real acting misstep comes from Greta Gerwig‘s robotic and stiff turn as unlikely exchange student turned revolutionary Tracy, a small yet meaningful character who could’ve (and should’ve) been so much more.
Anderson’s detail oriented direction often makes me unconditionally giddy and this time around is no exception. Every little clothes button and curly hair and old timey microphone is so reverently and affectionately placed that you’d have to watch this film at least a dozen times to fully appreciate the utmost care and meticulous precision that is on display. This works tenfold when it comes to the visual creativity, but it also is something that hurts the film’s narrative.
The screenplay feels like it was diagrammed and workshopped to death, rigid and tense, planned out and so carefully plotted to the point that it loses all of its thunder. The social commentary sadly becomes tiresome, and the witty cleverness is drowned out by the oft-putting smugness and pretension. The only thing that’s truly disappointing about “Isle of Dogs” is the long-winded script.
While it may not be one of Anderson’s very best works, it’s still a brilliant, charismatic, beautiful looking movie. The stop-motion on display here is an achievement of the highest order, and anyone who adores animation as an art form should flock to this film.