Film Review: Isle of Dogs

I’m not really a Wes Anderson fan. His story-telling methods very much define him as an auteur, but I’m just not a fan. So how is it that I can say that when I can rank The Royal Tenenbaums as one of my all-time favorite movies? More directly, how much of an influence does that have on my thoughts on Anderson’s latest film, Isle of Dogs?

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Wes Anderson

Let’s start with the beginning.

I would say that the highly entertaining folks at Honest Trailers have hit a whole lot of Anderson’s work on the head. There is a brutal symmetry to his screenshots that places people into very relatable everyday life regardless of the uniqueness of the backgrounds. And let me be clear that his backgrounds are utterly inspired. With the nuanced and very human dialogue and oft-cluttered backgrounds (at least insofar as clutter belonging to an OCD sufferer might appear), Anderson shoots images that are both colorful and oddly sparse. Yet he does so by giving us a visual treat of inconsistency that prevents or reduces linear story-telling. One thing that viewers of Anderson’s movies can always expect are jumps in time, from emotion to emotion, from present stress to sources of said stresses. Such non-linear story-telling usually comes across well. Coupled with excellent music choices, one would think that Anderson’s approach to story-telling (scripts) and film (overall production) would lend itself to be loved by me.

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It does. As I said, I’m a fan of Tenenbaums. In this film, Gene Hackman is brilliant as the emotionally corrupt patriarch of a highly dysfunctional family, and played in remarkably nuanced performances by the ensemble cast. They are all so good that I can rank this as one of those films that I never tire of, and will probably sit through every time it comes on television.

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I found The Grand Budapest Hotel to be similarly enjoyable. Creepy, yes, in its own strange way – but exactly in the way that I think Anderson was trying to inspire in his audience. I thought that it was an enjoyable movie that told a very interesting tale that one would not really expect to see in 21st Century cinemas. But amid all this praise, I hated The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. How is that possible when it featured a cast including Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, and Michael Gambon? Maybe it was because this followed Tenenbaums in Anderson’s portfolio, a film which just might have set the bar too high for Life Aquatic. There are certainly people out there who think that Life Aquatic is Anderson’s best, but I am unapologetically not one of them. (Link?)

I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not a fanboy. I like Anderson’s work, but I hold each piece of art as a separate piece of art. In this respect, you can expect a fair and balanced review of Isle of Dogs.

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Isle of Dogs is s stop-motion film directed by Anderson and co-written by him, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura. In the Nagasaki Prefecture, a manipulative mayor banishes all dogs to Garbage Island, where he expects them all to die. Twelve-year-old Atari flies to the island in search of his loyal bodyguard, Spots. It stars the voice talents of Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, the late F. Murray Abraham, and Yoko Ono. An introduction of sorts was given to the characters here.

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This is the second stop-motion film Anderson has directed, following The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and this felt like a very good presentational choice for this film. Cinematically, he was able to bring out very dog-like movements from the various characters in a smooth and enjoyable fashion. Not just the dogs, but all stop-motion performances came across as very real despite the drawbacks of the art form. By using real hair on the various animals, Anderson was able to bring out the uniqueness of the four-legged (or winged) cast. Interspersed with the remarkable subtlety of stop-motion animation, there were also segments that were more traditionally animated. As these were presented on television, it made a lot of sense to step outside of the vivid 3D world of this film and into the more traditional 2D for such 2D presentation. For me, one of the most successful visual effects was the way the world appeared to be 3D despite my watching the film in 2D. Anderson’s attention to the camera really helped to bring out the very best of each shot. Yes, there was a remarkable amount of Anderson’s trademark symmetry in each shot, and at no point did the camera actually appear to move, but in spite of this, there was plenty of motion within the film to keep it active.

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Perhaps one of my favorite parts of this movie were the fight scenes. Normally, “fight scenes” isn’t a word that one associates with Anderson. In his films, there might be chases or a singular punch, possibly even a tussle, but a fight? Nah. Anderson’s cinematic world is far too cerebral for that kind of thing. Dogs, however, gives us not just one, but several fight scenes. And he does them with panache. I think that we are so caught up in the sensibilities of modern cinema that we tend to take for granted aspects of story-telling from long ago. In cartoons of old, battles were often turned into a roiling ball of dust and random jabs of limbs or a face, or a sound effect bubble. Watching the fights of this movie appear as if they had come right out of an old-school cartoon filled me with nostalgic glee.

Repeat composing collaborator Alexandre Desplat created a quirky soundtrack built around Akira Kurosawa score and Taiko Drumming. Taking that Japanese influence one step further and you get into the dubbing within the movie. A whole lot of the dialogue was Japanese, though a colleague mentioned that the language felt stilted and minimalistic in a way that ran contrary to the dynamism of his English dialogues. Considering the movie is set in Japan, this kind of makes sense that the people would speak in the native language (such as the minimalistic language actually was). The dogs, on the other hand, all spoke English, and the most important human story aspects were dubbed thanks to an interpreter (Frances McDormand). People who might not love Foreign Films might be turned off by such bi-lingualism within the film, but this guy loved it. Indeed, I would even go so far as to say that the cadence and auditory style of Japanese is by far my favorite of any language. I can’t understand it to save my life, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love it. So to me, this was very welcome.

If the daring story and heart-warming premise had any failings it was in the use of a foreign exchange student named Tracy Walker. While I enjoyed the group of revolutionaries (especially as they reflected the drive of a group of contemporary freedom fighters in the USA, battling against the controversial Second Amendment), the use of a very pale white girl sporting a big red afro felt insincere. Am I supposed to walk away from this movie thinking that people in Japan really are so anti-dog that it takes one impassioned white girl to motivate everyone in the entire city of Megasaki to protect their animals? While Tracy’s story ran concurrently with Atari’s tale as a complement to it, it nonetheless could have been done just as well had all the characters been actual Japanese individuals. I get it. Anderson, I get it. Using Tracy, audiences were able to enjoy one more avenue through which to use English, but that doesn’t mean that I have to like it.

Final thoughts

This movie far exceeded my expectations. Going in, the film had a quirky look that I felt happy to watch, but I honestly did not expect to be so thoroughly charmed by so much within this film. From story to quirky characters, to the implied war between cats and dogs, to the music, and the remarkable synergy between Anderson’s story-telling and the visual world, this movie delivered a fun package the played both animalistic nuance and character-driven story.

 

5 of 5 leader-named dogs

Isle of Dogs 5 dogs

 

 

The Queen has spoken.

  • A special Queen’s Nostalgia Reviews will go live on Friday, April 20th. Start your speculations now.
  • My latest novel. “The book rocked.”

 

 

 

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