Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Greta Gerwig, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Courtney B. Vance
Plot: A corrupt mayor who hates cats sends all dogs to an island made of trash. Years later, a young boy (Rankin) heads there to reunite with his lost dog.
You have to be a pretty confident director to pull off a film like Isle of Dogs. It is the kind of gamble that most critics expect to fall flat on its face. It’s an animated comedy, but with the usual child-friendly charm stripped from the proceedings as expected. Instead of loveable personalities, there is a fascinating ugliness to Anderson’s style of stop motion animation. The dogs look like they have undergone taxidermy a year previous, scabby and dead-eyed. The human characters have their expressive features solidified, some of the more villainous figures coming across as scary, grotesque figures. Yet at the same time, Anderson has not made this an adult production. When handling animation as visceral as Isle of Dogs, there must be the temptation to turn the whole feature into something akin to the anime segment in Tarantino’s Kill Bill. However, Wes Anderson does his damned hardest to pull the content back into the realms of cutesy. No matter how climatic the fight, Anderson always directs it the same… the characters become enveloped in a cloud of fists, limbs and comic book sound effects, as though cinema has reverted back to the days of the Beano. The humour is paramount here, Anderson spending most of the film, no matter how artsy the production is seeming to appear, taking cheap shots at his surroundings. He plays with words, creating phrases like the underdog dogs. He has his characters break character and chip in a cheeky aside to the camera. The truth of the matter is that Isle of Dogs is quite a bleak story. The first half hour is quite relentless, with man’s best friend being horrifically exiled and abandoned. There are some heart-wrenching moments where a puppy swears allegiance to the child he is assigned to as a bodyguard, which obviously ends in cruel separation. Loveable dogs are reduced to cannibalistic killers. Bryan Cranston’s alpha dog has an addiction to biting people and he cannot understand why his nature doesn’t let him make friends easily. The events of Isle of Dogs are particularly hard-hitting, but the brilliance of the direction means that the brutality of the script doesn’t quite sink in. The dialogue is delivered matter-of-factly, the horrors at play are lightened with casual humour and the animation paints a surreal and contrasting beauty to the grim setting. It gives Wes Anderson free reign to take his story in whatever direction he pleases.
Mind you, he does have a secret weapon: dogs. The beauty of this story is that it is so universal. When you’ve taken the dystopian future angle out of it and shoved the government conspiracy storyline to the background, this is a very simple tale of a little boy who wants his dog back. It makes every beat and scene feel so relatable, no matter how crazy Wes Anderson’s universe-building gets. This is no happy accident on Anderson’s part, but an intelligent bridge from realism to his own brand of surrealism. When the movie slows down and sees Bryan Cranston’s grumpy stray dog slowly build up a bond with the human he is trapped on a road trip with, the heartstrings are pulled at. You feel that none of the actors even have to work at their job to get all of these emotions across. Liev Schreiber gives a wonderfully restrained performance of the dog at the centre of the story, whose undying loyalty is conveyed with his monotone yet thoughtful choice of words. It is almost a shame that Anderson puts so many distracting angles into Isle of Dogs that, in the final act especially, feel like they are detracting from the bond between man and dog. Perhaps this is the only part of the story where Wes Anderson shows some form of doubt in his product, as if he feels that the best way to keep audiences invested in this strange animation style is to keep events moving at a brisk pace. Perhaps this is true for the opening of the movie, which throws sub-plots, flashbacks and segues at us every few seconds, Anderson poking knowing winks at the story’s refusal to stay fixed to one point. Anyone who has looked over the weighty cast list will guess that this is a movie with quite a few balls to juggle. As well as the story about a boy trying to get his dog back with have a pedigree show-dog running loose on an island who builds chemistry with Cranston, a student reporter trying to take down the mayor’s government and a pug who can predict the future (read: she is the only dog who can understand television). But as the movie gets deeper into its story, you feel that Wes Anderson realises he no longer needs all of these supporting characters. Scarlett Johansson gets buried in the opening, never to be brought up again. Tilda Swinton is reduced to a few jokes. Even Bryan Cranston’s pack of dogs don’t really get much to do when they have convinced our hero to join them on the journey, which feels like a particular waste of talent, when you have the likes of Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray and even Edward Norton in the cast. You begin to wish for a more streamlined story. The actors who do the best are the ones able to take one scene and absolutely nail it. Harvey Keitel gets two minutes of screen-time and almost runs away with the entire movie.
Final Verdict: Look past the crowded narrative and you will find a thoroughly enjoyable and touching animation with all of those quirky Wes Anderson traits.