“That kid is gonna get us killed. Euthanised. We won’t find the dog, but we will die trying.” Chief, Isle of Dogs (2018)
I think Wes Anderson may be in my top three for favourite directors of all time. He’s nudged into third place by Quentin Tarantino and Stanley Kubrick. Either way, he’s one of the best living directors to date and much of his work boils down to a handful of significant tropes. Even with that in mind, Isle of Dogs is one of the most fresh, inviting and fun movies I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. Being such a big fan of Fantastic Mr. Fox (2007), I was excited to see what a second animation from Anderson would look like.
As it turns out, it seems he can only improve on what he has learned from Fantastic Mr. Fox. Whereas that was an adaptation of an excellent Roald Dahl novel, Isle of Dogs is very much its own unique and exciting piece. An exceptional story, the idea that all dogs in Japan have been put on a singular island due to an outbreak of dog flu. The film follows Chief (Bryan Cranston) and his group of dogs (Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Edward Norton and Bob Balaban), aiding young child Atari (Koyu Rankin), as he searches for his missing dog. The plot itself is explained pretty well in the beginning and continually develops over the course of the movie. Sure, there’s a couple of flashback scenes, but for the most part it’s a very enjoyable plot.
Obviously you’ve probably latched onto the fact that, like most other Anderson movies, there’s an ensemble cast. With animated movies, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out which voice goes where. However the entire ensemble of Anderson movies is featured, with regulars like Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham and newcomers Greta Gerwig and Liev Schreiber all lending their talents to the movie. It’s nice to see Bryan Cranston continue to work in the mainstream of movies, his work in Trumbo (2015) was absolutely excellent. His character Chief is a really good suit for him, working as some sort of hesitant protagonist.
But talent can only go so far, it’s the script and structure of the movie that ultimately matters. From my point of view, it’s a really good script. A lot of lines throughout are very well delivered and the chemistry of the cast feels very natural. Murray and Norton have a good bit of chemistry with one another, with Norton definitely receiving more lines. Murray has barely a word to say, his character isn’t as fleshed out as everyone else which does surprise me to some extent. Murray himself is a fantastic actor, one of my personal favourites, so it is a bit of a shame that his character seems to be the most neglected of all.
From an animation standpoint, the film is marvellous. With a similar tone to that of Fantastic Mr. Fox, the animation is possibly the most engrossing part of the movie. With animation, there’s a very different stance in regard to the cinematography. But what surprises me above all is how genuinely dark the film can be. For an Anderson animation, tonally, it’s extremely dark. Not so much gore, but there’s an oddly large amount of blood and violence, especially considering the movie is an animation. It swings between comedic clouds of dust, something straight out of Looney Tunes, and then you’ve got fully choreographed dog fights. It’s an interesting mix and what’s even better is that it mixes oddly well.
What I have noticed though is that whenever Anderson makes an animated movie, he can get away with a bit more than his live action adventures. He can foray into much darker territory with animation, presumably because it’s easier to create a disconnect with the audience and Plasticine models.
Anderson himself skims through his library of tropes with some leisure. He does manage to fit in a handful of new elements, the opening of the film reminded me somewhat of Tarantino’s work. Along the way there are the typical wide angle shots which do look very impressive when the film is animated, along with some lovely extreme close ups to mark an escalation in the conflict of the movie. When it comes to the animation itself, Anderson’s imagination runs rampant. Those aforementioned fight scenes often utilise cotton wool to create an enjoyable visual effect, it’s all very simple but adds to the tone of the film exceptionally well.
Of course, it’s not an Anderson movie without a romance subplot being shoehorned in without any real regard to the main plot. Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) is there solely to provide that femme fatale role, and it’s really unnecessary. Maybe it’s because there’s something very weird and uncomfortable watching dogs flirt. It’s reaffirming more than anything, if dogs can do it then why can’t I? That’s possibly the worst part and character of the film. I’ve got nothing against Johansson, she’s a phenomenal actor, but here her character appears in few scenes and is expected to have a much greater importance than should be given.
As far as Andersons filmography goes, Isle of Dogs certainly feels like the biggest collection of his tropes. There’s nothing wrong with that, however his direction and tropes are now easy to guess and it becomes a tad boring every now and then. By all means, Isle of Dogs is a great movie, but I think I’m starting to find my fill of Anderson movies. There’s nothing that really sets them out from one another anymore. Ironically in trying to make unique and delicate stories, he has instead made similar products time and time again. His use of lighting, cast members and often plot is all too similar to make much of a difference anymore.
But while Isle of Dogs may feel like the expected can can of Anderson stereotypes, it is in itself one of the most unique feeling films I’ve ever had the chance to see. I went in expecting yet another Anderson classic, and that’s exactly what I received. I’d been waiting for an animated Anderson movie for some time, and it’s great that his second animation lives up to the expected standard. It feels more unique than most of his other projects, especially films like The Royal Tenenbaums (2000). With a nice number of twists and turns throughout, Isle of Dogs may be the film to bag Anderson a well deserved Oscar.