Isle of Dogs


My obsession with Wes Anderson came on very suddenly. I had previously seen Fantastic Mr. Fox, but that didn't necessarily make me pursue all of his other films immediately. It was during a sort of random selection, where I decided "I suppose it's time to watch some Wes Anderson movies", where I suddenly fell in love with his style of directing. Even among his peers, it's entirely unique in it's complete disregard for the rules that everyone else seems to follow religiously. That isn't to say that Anderson is the only one who eschews typical directing techniques, but he does so in such a way that seems to run counter to everything that they would teach you to do in film school. It's this style of directing (and of writing) that lends his movies such an irresistible charm, and Isle of Dogs is no different. Clearly he enjoyed making Fantastic Mr. Fox so much that he knew he had to return to stop-motion, and the result here is something of simple beauty to behold, a movie with surprising depth that is simultaneously very easy to enjoy on a surface level. 

Anderson's style of directing is possibly one of the only ones in recent memory besides maybe Tarantino's where you can watch a 1 minute clip and say "Wes Anderson did that". Most directors don't like to have such an obvious and showy style, because if you don't know what you're doing, it can completely take away from the subject matter and be nothing but a distraction. But Anderson does know what he's doing. He's a filmmaker who, rather than attempting to blur the line between film and reality, he highlights it with big, bold strokes. His movies feel like a storybook, characters frequently moving horizontally across the screen to get from place to place, standing center frame and staring into the camera, and talking out loud about their feelings. This is not a traditional way to convey a narrative that you want your audience to connect with, but Anderson has somehow become the king of creating personal, affecting stories, even as he splashes bright, obvious color schemes all over his movies. Part of this may simply be because his movies just feel so good to watch. His style of directing allows him to pack numerous tonal shifts within a relatively small time frame, jumping from a funny moment to a serious one, and back again, without any sort of whiplash associated with it. It feels natural, it flows, it doesn't seem ridiculous (at least, not in a bad way). Everything feels like it works because we view it as a movie. We allow wacky things to happen, tonal shifts to occur, and strange dialogue to pass, because our suspension of belief has been built up to allow for these things to take place. Isle of Dogs is what a story book would look like come to life, which is funnier considering that Isle of Dogs is entirely original and not based on anything whatsoever. 

I simply can't talk about the visuals here enough (clearly). Besides the masterful direction, the cinematography and absolutely beautiful stop motion both make this movie a treat to watch. This is something Anderson has always excelled at, painting his movies with visually pleasing color palettes and scenery, but here with his second stop-motion picture, he's gone all in. The set pieces here are part of what makes this film such an adventure. Mountains of empty bottles, a lab that doubles as a bar, an abandoned amusement park, all of these add to the exotic and exciting atmosphere fostered here. And, as you can see in the picture above, the stop-motion is absolutely gorgeous. It is insanely detailed, and expressive, I cannot imagine how much work must have gone into crafting every single character and location. Fantastic Mr. Fox looked very good, but this is on another level. The character design as well is excellent. Many of the characters, especially the dogs, leave such lasting impressions with no small thanks to their design. The performances help as well of course, but almost every one of them looks so striking and unique that it's so easy to remember them all. People sometimes forget that film is supposed to be a visual medium, and have character designs that are merely functional or just straight up lazy. Anderson and his collaborators have never been ones to skip out on character design, you could say that as a director Anderson focuses mainly on his visuals, usually as a means to convey story more than anything, but also just to delight his audience. Artistic, thoughtful, and experimental films obviously have their place in cinema, but sometimes we get too buried in our own heads to truly appreciate the lighthearted, straightforward, beautiful movies that are out there. Anderson and his collaborators are ones who are more than anything else, chasing the perfect cinematic experience that can be enjoyed by the average movie goer, and the more discerning critic. With Isle of Dogs (and with many of their other movies), I'd say that they've succeeded.

The writing here as well is classic Anderson, and it's hard to say that anything has "improved" given his recent streak of incredibly good films, but it is very easy to endorse as being some of his best. He does such a good job of having his characters bluntly state how they feel, in ways that don't feel contrived or insincere. In fact, the way the lines are delivered somehow give them more true emotional depth despite the frankness of what's being said. Bryan Cranston in particular as Chief is such a great performance, giving so much depth to the scroungy, stray dog that leads the main pack (featuring the voice talents of Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Bob Balaban). Cranston has seen such an incredible revival in his career since Breaking Bad, and I'm so glad he was given the chance to the main character of Isle of Dogs, because he delivers so well. He brings some of that roughness and distance that he's been exhibiting lately and through the film transforms it into a vulnerability and earnest desire to do good. The central cast of dogs mentioned earlier is also excellent, lending themselves to well done running gags that are funny the first time, and laugh out loud hilarious by the end. Each of these actors has such inherent charisma, that it's impossible not to be charmed by all of them playing off of each other. If someone had told me that they all just got together in a room and chatted for a while, and put that into the script, I'd probably believe it. The human side of this movie is noticeably less fleshed out, but they add an important driving force to the film that would have left it lacking otherwise.

I do want to note something that I thought was genius while watching the movie, which is the movie's use of the Japanese language. When we see the humans talking to each other, it's generally subtitled or translated for us, but when the boy Atari is on the island with the dogs, they are speaking English, he is speaking Japanese, and it is in no way translated for us. We can generally only pick out very obvious things like "Spotsu", "sitto", or "fetchi". Most of the time we have no clue what he's saying. I believe this was done very intentionally, to help the audience understand what it must be like to be a dog. No matter what language is being spoken, dogs don't actually understand what is being said. They can be taught to understand specific commands, but even then they don't truly understand the meaning behind those words. Yet, despite this communication barrier, we form bonds with our pets, and they with us. In Isle of Dogs, none of the dogs (or us) know what Atari is saying 95% of the time, but through is actions and tone we generally understand what he's feeling or what he's after, we're able to form a connection to him despite this clear language barrier. Our pets experience this every day, loving us and wanting to be with us, even though we are essentially speaking gibberish to them all day long that they have no hopes of understanding, save a select few words. I don't know how Anderson got this idea, but I really just thought that it was amazing. I think this movie is such a true love letter to the relationship that people have with their pets, and through this clever technique, maybe he helps us to understand what things are like from their side of this strange relationship we have with them.

Through and through this is an entertaining movie. It requires nothing more than a love for adventure and animals to enjoy, and luckily it has both in spades. I didn't have room to talk about some of the other beautiful things this movie has in it, like Tilda Swinton's amazing and hilarious portrayal of the dog "Oracle", but that just tells you more about the movie than I can actually say. It has both a depth to it that can be dug into if necessary, and a surface level entertainment value that shouldn't be dismissed. An Anderson movie is one of enjoyment, of exploration, and one of enthusiasm, a movie that should run you through a full set of emotions and instead of leaving you exhausted, leave you refreshed and invigorated. Isle of Dogs is an incredible adventure, and it's one that I'm sure I'll soon be adding on my Blu-ray shelf next to Fantastic Mr. Fox.