We all love dogs. They are man’s best friend are just the friendliest little guys. We can either have them as friends and companions to make sure our lives are happier but you can also train them to be very useful with many dogs helping the disabled in many ways. Basically dogs are brilliant and they are usually even more brilliant in films. We instantly fall in love with any dog put on screen which is why dog deaths affect us even more when those of our own species are killed. There’s a reason we remember Marley and Me. But what about a film all about dogs? Well, we’ve got one with Isle of Dogs.
In near-future Japan, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura, Lost in Translation) has decreed that all dogs be sent to trash island after they all start getting horrible diseases. However his ward Atari (Koyu Rankin, First Feature Film) travels to the island to save his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber, Spotlight) but ends up with the alpha pack of the island who reluctantly agree to help him find his lost dog.
From the trailer you will notice that this is a stop motion movie which means you are dreading the review proper because as a film critic, I have to take some time to say how wonderful the artform is and that I love seeing it. It’s a massive cliché to go on about how great stop motion is because we do this for every movie of this type, Studio Laika really exposed how much we do this, but please let me do it one more time. Because this movie does look wonderful and I love every bit of the style of the film. I love that the stop motion allows the dogs to look properly ragged instead of the attempts to look dirty that never quite work in CGI. I love the stylistic choices like when fights happen, they turn into old cartoon style with big clouds of smoke disguising the actual bout. It’s just a great film to look at, never mind watch.
Of course the reason those style choices work is because this film is directed by Wes Anderson (Fantastic Mr Fox) who makes a return to this sort of animation. Whatever you think about his movies, they always look unique and wonderful. However Anderson is presented with a rather large challenge in this one. Because the movie either takes place on an island full of trash or a dystopian Japanese city, Anderson does not get the chance to throw pastel colours on everything to make it all look pretty. But despite only getting a palette of greys, blacks and reds, the movie still looks brilliant. I don’t know how he does it, I’m thinking the Japanese stylings make it far more interesting than a normal trash island, but he manages to make this film look fantastic from start to end.
And because it’s a Wes Anderson movie, the thing it has most of all is charm. Bucket loads of it, enough to create a charm shop and sell the charm for profit, then use that profit to make even more charm and so on. This is another thing it’s really hard to put your finger on but this movie is just so likable. Maybe it’s because of the positive view it has of its characters in that the majority are good in their hearts or just the matter of fact way it deals with things. Like at the start of the movie where it tells you all the dogs’ barks have been translated into English like this is a documentary. There’s something about that sort of comedy which is just sweet and makes the movie very easy to love like a lot of other Anderson movies.
And the main plot is very entertaining as well. The main crux of the story is Atari trying to find his dog with them not being sure if he is alive or not. Even though most people won’t understand what Atari is saying, all human characters other than the exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha) speak Japanese, he is so easy to feel sympathy with as he is just a young boy who wants the one thing he loves in the world. There’s also the story of this pack which while lead by committee, this leads to some of the funniest jokes in the movie, is basically run by Chief (Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad). He is a stray who doesn’t like humans or by his own words, “I Bite”. Finding out his story and seeing his admittedly expected transformation into a different sort of dog is great to see and it helps with the overall charm of the movie.
However my only issue with the movie, which is minor in the big scheme of things, revolve around this pack. Rex (Edward Norton, American History X), King (Bob Bolaban, Gosford Park), Boss (Bill Murray, Lost in Translation) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum, The Grand Budapest Hotel) are all great characters and are just good doggos to be around. For most of the film, it’s basically an ensemble piece with these dogs forcing Chief to go along with their plan to find Atari’s dog. But as we enter the final third and plot points are revealed and evil plans go into motion, they are pretty much forgotten. They just jump into the background while everything is wrapped up and are pretty much forgotten about until you see them at the end. I get why because the plot becomes very hectic at the end and it has to be as streamlined as possible but it’s a shame we end up losing such likable characters with not that much explanation.
Isle of Dogs is unique because it’s a charming stop motion film that will grab at the heart strings while having you smiling and chuckling throughout. But then again it’s not that unique because pretty much every Wes Anderson movie is like that. It’s another example of him making a beautiful movie which just dazzles you throughout and then sets up home in your heart. If you dislike Wes Anderson movies there is nothing here that will change your mind but if you do like them, prepare to fall in love once again.