Isle of Dogs (2018) (Review)

Wes Anderson is a meticulous director. Even just taking his last film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, into account, you can see the level of precision permeating each and every frame; everything has its place, nothing is without meaning. With Isle of Dogs, Anderson returns to stop-motion animation after his work with Fantastic Mr. Fox back in 2009, an cinematic style that seems designed for his artistic sensibilities.

In a dystopian near-future Japan, a dog flu virus has spread throughout the canine population, leading to the authoritarian new mayor of Megasaki City to sign a decree banishing all dogs to Trash Island. Despite claims of a cure growing closer, the decree is maintained, leading to Atari Kobayashi, nephew of the new leader, to flee to the island where his dog Spots is banished. With a voice casting bursting with big names including Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand and Scarlett Johansson, Anderson's latest is a typically starry affair.

Despite my respect for Anderson as a director, Isle of Dogs did very little to enamour me in the lead up to its release. Promotional work played very bizarrely with some strange editing decisions across the trailers, leaving me unsure as to who the film was targeting or even made for. Something about it felt off. Thankfully, the end product is far more assured -- although still a little uneven.

Anderson's script begins in a delightful fashion. The interplay between our new-found furry friends is breezy and comic, ladened with Anderson's smart wit and a real charm that makes the prospect of spending another hour or so with these four-legged friends a sheer joy. As they begin to journey across Trash Island on an adventure of sorts, it's not difficult to see yourself wanting to spend the whole runtime in the company of these lovely, quirky characters. While the film maintains that momentum and energy to some degree, it diverts more towards a decidedly denser entity, a heavy story of corruption and authoritarian society --  a decision which holds Isle of Dogs back. It's clear to me this film would actually benefit from less story and a touch of pure simplicity.

Said selection makes for a slightly uneven narrative and while the bond between human and animal is a constant source of enjoyment, it does feel slightly diluted by the need to power through the more complex elements of the script. It's a relief that Anderson's creativity is in full swing here to keep us engaged aesthetically, with some incredibly slick and detailed visuals for us to awe at. If anyone can win me round to stop-motion (an animation style I've found myself to be a little reluctant to), it's Wes Anderson, with the exactness of his execution enthralling. From the dogs' fur to the grand set pieces that outweigh their scale with scope, Isle of Dogs is an joy because of Anderson's measured artistry. Alongside Alexandre Desplat's characterful score and the adorable voice cast performances, when Isle of Dogs charms (as it so frequently does in the first half in particular) it's a real delight.

While the second half didn't win me over as much as the first, there's a political overtone running throughout Isle of Dogs that is really admirable. Tackling such resonant themes, Anderson counteracts the time-consuming stop-motion process by delivering a timely message of the moment. By combining it in a product accessible for all - if not entirely aimed at an audience as young as the likes of Disney, Pixar and Illumination - Anderson's work holds extra charge for its current-world depth. Despite not being bowled over by the eventual execution, I can still appreciate the fierce effort.

Isle of Dogs is another fine endeavour from Wes Anderson, with an absolutely terrific first half let down somewhat by a more lukewarm second stretch. It's packed with delight when we're in the company of our furry friends especially, enlivened further through terrific voice performances, and although it winds up overcomplicating itself, it's more than enjoyable and worth your time and money. What's more, the technically-astonishing visuals more than make up for any narrative kinks and once again demonstrate that this director oozes artistry and dedication to his craft.


Summary: Isle of Dogs is another fine addition to Wes Anderson's already-impressive filmography, and while it starts better than its ends, it is technically-impressive and delightful enough to warrant your time and attention.