“Isle of Dogs” brings another addition into Wes Anderson’s distinctly offbeat filmography and while this one doesn’t divert far from his easily recognizable style, it still manages to be different from anything that he or anyone else has done before.
The stop-motion animated film tells the story of an alternate timeline where the Japanese government outlaws dogs and exiles them to a trash-filled island. From there, it unwinds into a zany plot of survival and political conspiracy as a boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin) ventures over to the island to retrieve his canine companion Spots.
Toward the beginning, a pack of five dogs is introduced, voiced by Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray and Bob Balaban. The group’s dynamic is excellent and it initially seems like the story will focus around them.
Unfortunately, Cranston’s character is the only one who actually ends up receiving any character development, while the other four are shoved aside, used only for plot advancement. The relationship between Chief (Cranston) and Atari does manage to produce terrifically affectionate moments though.
The other characters woven into the animation include a group of pro-dog activists, ghoulish government officials, robotic dogs, tribal dogs and two wise dogs serving as guides for the protagonists. While each of these aspects had their individual charms, it feels like Anderson should have either trimmed down the cast and plot, or extended the length of the movie to give everything sufficient screen time.
“Isle of Dogs” is still sweet, thoroughly entertaining, visually admirable and funny enough to get laughs without detracting from an otherwise serious story.
While it’s impressive how this complex plot is executed for the most part, the lasting impression of “Isle of Dogs” comes from its gorgeous and detailed visuals. The vast locations feel grimy and lived-in, and the features on the characters from their appearances to facial expressions speak to the audience through visuals rather than dialogue.
While this is far from the first lively, terrific animated film, the art of stop-motion requires so much dedication and meticulous effort that, when done well, it deserves extra commendation. The way it’s designed feels specific and fits perfectly with the film’s unique tone, in a way 3-D animation couldn’t have matched.
Like most of Anderson’s work, “Isle of Dogs” blends witty dialogue with emotional moments to synthesize an experience that is bittersweet and touching without feeling cheesy. In the spirit of animated films featuring talking animals, the dogs deliver far more humor and personality than the humans.
Although the movie has a handful of memorable scenes, they don’t quite match the emotional and comical highs as some of Anderson’s previous films like “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014). The intricate plot and deep cast of characters make it feel a bit crowded and, to get the obligatory dog pun out of the way, this film bit off more than it could chew.
The exiling of dogs and eventual push to bring them back creates an overarching message of unity for different groups to coexist. This theme resonates with the hotly contested topic in current political discussions regarding immigration, but it also blends well into the story, never becoming too distracting or on the nose.
For fans of Wes Anderson, masterful animation, creative and original storytelling or, of course, dogs, this is absolutely worth the watch.
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