There are quite a few directors who are event draws in and of themselves, but few of them have such a recognizable style as Wes Anderson. Like say Quentin Tarantino, his work is unmistakable instantaneously either by script or by visuals in a way imitators have never been able to capture. It’s a quirky, highly stylized (and easily parodied) design to be sure, but it’s also one that is pretty consistently gorgeous to look and at its best, makes for some wonderful films and at its worst, merely mediocre fare. His last three films however have been some of the best work of his career and consistently fantastic, a run which was kicked off by The Fantastic Mr. Fox, a film I’ll be referring back to a lot this review.
The reason why that film makes for such an easy point of comparison is that The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs together represent Anderson’s two forays into stop motion animation. While this year’s first major stop motion film was a bust for me, it’s still a subgenre that I love and visually both films deliver. On the surface they share a similar look, but Isle of Dogs is far more likely to delve into alternate animations styles, and it usually handles the switches seamlessly. There is such a great variety from the primary grungy stop motion to more traditional Japanese styles and if there was one area the movie excelled it was here. That’s not to say that necessarily translated to character design though as I found myself a bit underwhelmed in that department. There were all these wonderful and memorable environments, but unlike say The Fantastic Mr. Fox, no memorable characters aside from the lead boy Atari to fill it and that’s a task that’s especially impressive when you have someone naturally predisposed to dogs such as myself.
Of course, that predisposition to dogs also renders the basic nature of the story, that 20 years into the future, a mayor is able to convince everyone to quarantine all dogs (sick or no) on a trash island is just complete nonsense. Yes, I know there is a culture divide as the film is set in Japan and not the US and the movie jumps through so many hoops to try and justify how this could happen, it’s just that it fails so completely and utterly. Any time the movie leaves the main Trash Island where Atari has gone in search of his dog that has been taken from him, the movie grinds to an absolute halt. It’s just a nonsense jumble of conspiracies that tries to both take itself seriously and poke fun at the tropes o such stories only to fail miserably at both. You would think that this would be a minor subplot, but for the first half to two thirds of the movie, it takes up a significant portion of the screentime and I just don’t care. I’ll give the film credit for avoiding certain typical storytelling traps, but in an effort to throw us off balance, Anderson instead just throws the whole story off balance. Greta Gerwig’s foreign exchange student gets way too much screentime and I have to believe it is only because she speaks in English (that they do not have to contrive a way to translate since the film does not do subtitles, a stylistic choice that works for Atari on the island and is tiresome everywhere else.
But at its heart, and especially once it realizes that people come to a movie called Isle of Dogs to see an isle of dogs, it’s a fine enough movie about the relationship between man and dog. It doesn’t really offer much in the way of anything new to say that other better films haven’t said before and there’s plenty to recognize in the familiar Anderson characters (beyond their voices although I often forgot Bryan Cranston was now the lead because it very much sounded like a George Clooney character), but the story on the island serves the visuals well enough. It’s just a shame that “well enough” is all the film can manage with the moments of humor being fewer and farther between for me and when they hit, hit not nearly as hard as they should have (not that the “shocking” moments hit all that hard either). It’s a film that I left trying to talk myself into liking it more because everything about it should appeal to me and yet it just didn’t click entirely.