Stop-motion animation is now a rarely-used form of animation in Hollywood. There was a time where it was the go-to, most probably because it was the only way technology allowed. Nowadays it’s more of a niche thing, Aardman still use it in their trademark plasticine animations and Wes Anderson is fast becoming a practitioner in the art form.
Following on from the 2009 stop-motion film Fantastic Mr Fox, which boasts a similar art style to this film, is Anderson’s newest cinematic effort, Isle of Dogs.
In a dystopian future in the Japanese archipelago, a strand of dog flu threatens to enter the human disease pool. The mayor, who is from a dynasty famed for it’s hatred of dogs, exiles all canines from the city to a nearby trash dump, Trash Island.
As the dogs settle into their life of fighting each other and eating trash, the Mayor’s ward, Atari, arrives looking for his beloved dog Spots, starting an odyssey across the island accompanied by various dogs, who all help track down the beloved pet.
Wes Anderson is known as a director with an artistic eye. All of his movies are extremely nice to look at, but are also generally complex and don’t rely on their looks to carry the film, this is no exception, it’s beautifully crafted landscapes and characters look as though they took actual love, and attention to detail to create, as well as the dogs and humans themselves, all crafted in visually unique ways to distinguish them from each other.
The story will likely strike a chord amongst the dog-lovers, as a boy searching for his lost pet is likely to do, it doesn’t rely on this angle to characterise Atari though, a lot of effort went in to give him purpose and a backstory up to that point, to really drive home his struggles.
One drawback of the movie is it drags a bit in the middle section of the film, once it’s cast and their goals have been established it meanders a fair bit, I feel like an animated film should endeavour to keep a fast pace, as too much static scenes are likely to lose their audience, it wasn’t a deal-breaker but it sets a nice pace at the start and once again as it enters the third act, but brings itself down in the middle on occasion.
A massive point in it’s favour however is its star-studded voice cast, led by Bryan Cranston as Chief as well as turns from such heavyweights as Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Scarlett Johansson as well as Japanese talent like: Koyu Rankin (Atari), Kunichi Nomura (Mayor Kobayashi) and Akira Takayama (Major Domo).
One thing I really liked was how the Japanese feel wasn’t intruded upon in dialogue, Japanese characters converse in Japanese, and only when there is a translator character present is it translated, I like this as it gives the feeling that we are watching a living world, despite the fact it makes some of the dialogue redundant to non-Japanese speakers, it feels like we’re watching actual conversations, which add to the world very nicely.
Speaking of the Japanese feel, I couldn’t judge on how accurate it’s portrayal was, seeing as I’ve never been to Japan and know very little about it’s symbolism and culture, it did seem to the outside eye that it was accurate however, it may not be incredibly accurate, but that is a mystery to me. Something tells me that Wes Anderson isn’t the kind of director to assimilate a culture and feel just for the sake of it, and no doubt it was brought to life by people knowledgeable in Japanese culture.
Stark visual aesthetic and underused Japanese imagery aside, how does Isle of Dogs hold up as a movie, very well actually, it’s dialogue is well written and it’s story and characters very engaging, it’s use of music is also laudable, it does not often use a big soundtrack but when it drops a song in, it has purpose and fits into it’s structure very well.
In a world of cut-and-paste filmmaking, it’s nice to come across something that looks unique like this, it simply doesn’t look like any other animated movie you’ll see, it’s charming and engaging and thoroughly worth your time, despite it dragging in the middle it offers a rare cinematic experience that will be hard to duplicate.