Cinema: ‘Isle of Dogs’ Is Just Short Of Being A Complete Masterpiece

Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, is masterfully animated, quirky and a little bit of mess, but in a mostly good way. Isle of Dogs tells the story of a young boy on a quest to find his dog after all dogs are banned from Japan and exiled to live on an island of garbage. Crash landing on the island, the boy named Atari befriends a gang of dogs who agree to help him find his missing dog named Spots. While traversing the island, the group must avoid capture by government officials sent to bring back Atari and put down the dogs. It’s a gripping and fun movie that suffers from several flaws that prevent it from otherwise being Wes Anderson’s best movie.  

The story, while not bad, was one of the weakest parts of the film. On paper it’s a pretty simple story about a boy going on an adventure to find his missing dog, but the final product ends up being needlessly cluttered. For one, the film was filled with overly long scenes of exposition. Even though some exposition was needed to build up the very interesting world that the characters inhabit, it could have been done more naturally rather than be dumped in all at once. In fact, not everything needed to be explained so thoroughly and could have easily been left to the audience’s own imagination or through various context clues.    

The story is told in chapters, but the chapters seem unnecessary and semi arbitrary. Generally, a chapter would be used to denote a significant passage of time or perhaps a change in tone, but neither occur in this movie. Remove the chapters, and nothing would be lost. That said, breaking the movie into chapters doesn’t really harm the movie in any real way, other than confusing audiences as to the meaning. 

Minus the main characters Chief and Atari, most of the other characters fell flat. Chief, the dog voiced by Bryan Cranston, was interesting and likable. He was rough and gruff, but grew as a character over the course of the movie, but still he had a distinct personality that remained identifiable throughout the movie. Atari on the other hand, despite most English viewers not being able to understand his words, displayed a strong personality through his actions as he constantly rebelled against authority, but showed extreme compassion and determination to his canine friends. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the other supporting dog characters. The dogs in Chief’s pack felt very similar and one dimensional. There are a few things which somewhat set them apart such as the one dog acting as the deo facto leader and another really enjoying rumors, but the dogs would often blur together and their lines could easily be interchanged with one another. While they did serve their purpose of being funny sidekicks, they’re not likely to be remembered by audiences other than as a group of dogs or by their voice actors. (e.g. like the one voiced by Billy Murray who has a very distinctive and recognizable voice) If some of these characters could have been cut and/or condensed, they would have been much more memorable.

Speaking of characters, like most of Wes Anderson’s films, the majority of characters speak in a stilted and deadpan way. While this worked wonderfully for Wes Anderson’s other animated film Fantastic Mr. Fox, it felt less purposeful in Isle of Dogs. In Fantastic Mr. Fox many of the characters are misfits who don’t belong, so their strange delivery adds to the feeling that there’s something different about them. In Isle of Dogs, while the deadpan nature does lend itself well for jokes, it doesn’t really fit the characters as these dogs aren’t supposed to be all that different, and instead are supposed to represent the typical dog. Each dog comes from a different background in order to cover all ranges, so to have them mostly sound the same actually hurts the viewers' chances of distinguishing them from one another.

Despite Fantastic Mr. Fox having a stronger narrative and characters, Isle of Dogs completely blows Fantastic Mr. Fox out the water when comparing the visuals. The animation of Isle of Dogs is beyond amazing, and is some of the best out of any stop motion movie ever. Even if the story and characters were completely botched, which they’re not, this movie would still be worth the ticket just to experience all truly breathtaking visuals. All the sets and props are handmade and the extreme level of detail and care that went into to making them shows. There’s one scene where a character makes sushi that’s truly breathtaking. It’s a scene that’s only a minute or two long, but took eight months to fully realize. This may seem excessive to some, but these are the kind of scenes that will stick with people long after the movie’s over. Stop motion is hardly the most practical form of animation, but it is one of the most rewarding. It’s harder to pull off, but when it is, the results are something you must experience for yourself to truly appreciate.

Humor is very subjective from person to person, but Isle of Dogs is full of plenty of wonderful visual gags and funny lines. Even if one joke doesn’t land, there’s dozens more that probably will. Despite being a very funny movie, Isle of Dogs knows when to have humor and when not to. The dramatic moments are given the time and respect they deserve. The tone remains consistent throughout, so expect there to still be some laughs even when things do get more depressing. Isle of Dogs fully takes advantage of its PG-13 rating, meaning, despite being animated, this movie isn’t for children. There’s nothing too horrible that should prevent parents from showing this to an older child, but the delivery and complexity of the story isn’t something children are likely to enjoy.

Except for young children, this movie should appeal to audiences of all types. Anyone who’s ever had a dog or any pet will easily relate to the main character and might even find themselves particularly touched by the movie. Isle of Dogs is great at pulling at the art strings, but it never feels forced or manipulative. All the emotions felt throughout, feel genuine and earned. The movie takes a lot of time to set everything up, but it all pays off in the end.

The score was fantastic. The haunting sound of drums sets the mood and makes you feel as if you’re in Japan. The score seamlessly switches from somber to lighthearted at a moment’s notice, and never feels jarring or out of place. Together with the gorgeous landscapes, the two tie together well to deliver the atmosphere of a scene.

In the end, Isle of Dogs is a great movie, that anyone over the age of thirteen should go and see. Fans of Wes Anderson will not be disappointed and fans of animation need to see this film. If not for the story and characters, this film will definitely be remembered as a technical masterpiece. Here’s to hoping Wes Anderson continues with many more stop motion movies in the years to come.