It took more than two weeks for me to get a first-hand look at Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs.” In that time frame, I’ve heard critics swoon over the film with praises of Anderson’s whimsically charming storytelling and his meticulous craftsmanship, and I see that audience presence has slowly risen over time. I went into this viewing as a somewhat fan of Anderson’s filmography (big fan of "Moonrise Kingdom" and "Grand Budapest," not so much "Fantastic Mr. Fox" or "The Royal Tenenbaums"), but I left dissatisfied once again. I will agree that Anderson has crafted a film that can be whimsical and charming at times, but the overall effect feels buried in the isle of trash surrounding our canine characters.
Much of the film is crafted by the hounds at hand. From Duke (Jeff Goldblum) to Boss (Bill Murray) to King (Bob Balaban) to Rex (Edward Norton) to Chief (Bryan Cranston), the big dogs of the film are the best parts. Anderson allows some of the more infamous actors, Murray and Goldblum, to play upon their personas. It breathes some meta style comedy into the film which struggles to craft a story that is worth much investment. Taking place in a fictional Japanese city named Megasaki, in which an ancient rivalry between man and dog was born, Mayor Kobayashi launches an “Isle of Dog” decree in response to a dog influenza breakout that has seemingly left the governmental leaders no choice but to exile man’s best friend.
This, obviously, is not the meat of the story. Six months after the decree was ordered into action, Atari (Koyu Rankin), the ward of the mayor, courageously hijacks a plane and flies it to the “Isle of Dogs” in an attempt to retrieve his lost dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). Soon after arriving, action ensues, and conspiracies are let loose as a mystery/dramatic story is launched on to the screen by Anderson. The story is never confusing or intricate, but rather bland. It’s a simplistic tale of s young boy and his relationship with his dog, and it may be an allegorical representation of the mistreatment of immigrants. Nonetheless, Anderson struggles to inject enthusiasm into the film. I continued to watch with high hopes that the visual mastery would seep itself into the narrative. My dreams would not become a reality.
There are so many allegorical representations that felt noticeably unclever, much like the humor. I am not sure if it went over my head, or if it was too obvious to generate laughter. I couldn’t help but become jealous of those around me who were infected with humor. I wanted to become apart of the joke but felt outside the loop. I wanted to be involved though because the visual language of the film is crafted to near perfection. Anderson is a meticulous craftsman when it comes to his film’s cinematography. Tristan Oliver is behind the camera on “Isle of Dogs,” but Anderson’s fingerprints can be found throughout every inch of the canvas. I loved every frame of the stop-motion style that seems it has a blend of digital rendering with that of a handmade animation style that adds a certain level of grit to the narrative.
It feels rugged at times and with the added bonus of the depiction of the craggy fur of the dogs, you slowly find yourself drooling over Anderson's visual splendor. They are so amazingly rendered that it urged me to reach into the screen and give each one of them a good belly rub. Speaking of the dogs, each performance behind the dogs is enjoyable. They never scratch past the surface enough to become something great, but I could feel their enthusiasm enough to become satisfied. The quips and self-referential humor can be enjoyable, but if most of them seem blatantly obvious to you, then join the club. The smugness of the film becomes more annoying than anything else in which each gag becomes just that, a gag that jolts the story to a complete stop.
There are sprinkles of character depth attached to the dogs, but I continue to find myself only finding resonation because of my love of dogs and not the characters. The humans don’t share those sprinkles, because the language barrier becomes a nuisance and unjustified. Why not provide subtitles? I guess Anderson believes he’s offering more respect by forcing us to interpret these characters, but it evokes more frustration than anything else. Add in a character that some of described as whitewashing, and Anderson has crafted a story that is a bit off the beaten path for himself, which is saying something.
“Isle of Dogs” is a film that can be satisfying for film fans, but for the average moviegoer, it can become quite dull. The story is absent of energy, despite Alexandre Desplat’s heroic effort to interject excitement into the pacing through his excellent score. Anderson may continue his visual mastery as a filmmaker, but as a storyteller, he’s yet to find that mark for himself. I love most of his movies, but none have genuinely evoked me to rave about them. Anderson has said that Hayao Miyazaki was a major inspiration for him when crafting this film, but there is no evidence to show for it. While Miyazaki is an artistically gifted storyteller, Anderson is far better at framing his stories than telling them. Anderson is a very talented filmmaker, but maybe he should go back to the drawing board after “Isle of Dogs.” He needs just a bit more bark to his bite.