Isle of Dogs (2018): Overlong Beginning Leads to a Good End

Wes Anderson is one of my Top 3 favorite directors (the other two being Stanley Kubrick and John Carpenter). How does this film stand up compared to his other works? It is good, I loved the visuals and characters, but it doesn’t have the depth as some of his other works and it never reaches greatness, even though it is really good. The location and characters are wonderful with some beautiful homages to Kurosawa, and the main cast is wonderfully quirky with the main character arc being solid. So for my non-spoiler thoughts, this definitely gets a strong recommend.

The film was directed by Wes Anderson, who also wrote and was one of the producers of the film. With the other producers being Scott Rudin, Steven Rales and Jeremy Dawson.

The story follows Atari (Koyu Rankin) a young Japanese boy and ward of the new authoritarian Mayor. He travels to the Isle of Dogs to find his dog Spots (Liev Schrieber) on the Island after all dogs are exiled there due to the Dog Flu. Five dogs help on his quest, with Chief (Bryan Cranston) being the stray who hates humans but must learn to trust Atari for them all to survive the quest. As the quest unfolds a conspiracy is revealed on the Isle of Dogs and Megasaki City.

The Pros:

The Animation and Visuals – The film is done in highly detailed, beautiful stop motion animation. Wes Anderson’s use of symmetry is on full display, as each character and their emotions stand out like drum beats on the screen. You can tell that Kurosawa inspired Wes Anderson, and the making of the film. Both directors are good at using wide open spaces to tell stories of travel, and color to express life and death. We get all of that in this film.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack, like the visuals, takes a lot of inspiration from Akira Kurosawa, from the quiet openings with stark drums, and the emphasis on percussion. Alexandre Desplat captures the world so starkly, bringing the characters and scenes to life.

The Pack – The Pack is wonderful. Goldblum’s Duke is a gossip and hears things, Murray’s Boss is kind of oblivious and likes wearing trinkets, Norton’s Rex is the default second-in-command and sometimes leader, Balaban’s King is the washed up ex-celebrity dog who goes through bouts of depression, and Chief is their tough battle-worn leader.

Chief’s Arc – The main arc of the movie belongs to the stray, Chief, who goes from hating humans to becoming Atari’s new bodyguard. His story is believable too, with a dog he likes (Nutmeg) first suggesting he give the kid a chance, and ending with the Atari caring for him as he goes from covered in black soot, to looking just like Spots. He was my favorite character, and I loved how as standoffish as he initially was. There were reasons behind it, just like his transformation made sense due to Atari’s compassion. By the end, he’s the main connector between humanity and the dogs.

Atari and the Mayor – The Mayor is a distant relative of Atari, and for some reason really hates the dogs (it is implied that his ancestors did, and of course they loved cats). In the end Atari’s love for the dogs changes his heart. He does what he can in the end to stop the dogs from being destroyed due to that last minute change of heart. I liked Mayor Kobayashi in the end, he was a great antagonist and had a level of complexity to him.

Okay: The Foreign Exchange Student / The Student Arc – Tracy Walker leads her class in saving the dogs on the Island. My issue with this was that we never get what brought her to Japan, so it gives a bit of a white savior vibe to her interactions, especially since the other students are never given words. I’m still putting her at okay as Tracy was a compelling character, the downside is she could have been anyone, and I would have preferred she’d have been Japanese like Atari.

What About the Cats? – I’m putting this as okay as the film could have become overcrowded if we had the cats speaking. I also wanted to know the cats motivations. It implies they are the leaders of Japan, but it never does anything with it. The cats never have a voice, and it takes away from the overall point. They weren’t even needed, since the focus was on the dogs.

The Cons:

The Japanese are Only Given a Voice Through Limited Translation – This ties into Tracy and the students. Most Japanese never get the chance to speak, or be understood, as they are filtered through translation. This wasn’t needed at all. I think it was meant for us to focus fully on the story of the dogs, but the story of humanity and the dogs is interconnected, so both should have their voices fully heard.

Pacing – The pacing is the biggest issue, about 20 minutes in I was exhausted (I walked from Ready Player One to the awesome indie theatre, Salem Cinema, for this double feature). This may have been a contributing factor to how slow it felt, and why it took me out of the film early on. It is slow, even though the payoff later is fantastic.

This was a film that I really enjoyed, and captures so much of why Wes Anderson is one of my favorite directors. From the characters and their detachment, to the fight against the stronger enemy (Atari against the government), and the quirky characters (mostly the dogs)… If you are a fan of Wes Anderson, you will love this film. If you aren’t a fan, or haven’t heard of him… I’d still recommend it. This is an original story that may take a while to reel you in, but once there you’ll be hooked.

Final Score: 8.8 / 10

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