Take Cats and Dogs. Keep the heavy emphasis on an ancient relationship between dogs and humans but make it more nuanced. Make it not only stop-motion animated but also the longest stop motion animated film to date. Replace the entire cast, except for, crucially, Jeff Goldblum, and increase the film’s wit, maturity, expectations of its own audience and overall quality by about 90%. This is the formula for Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, an absolutely stunning film that pretty much demonstrates everything missing in not only the majority of animated films but also films aimed at children. It’s filled with clever ideas, interesting characters, razor-sharp dialogue and a story which only Anderson could tell as well as he does here.
The dogs especially feel truly alive and there are wonderful details that add so much charm to the film
The first thing that needs to be talked about in this film is the animation which is just glorious. The dogs especially feel truly alive and there are wonderful details that add so much charm to the film. When they fight, it’s a literal cloud of limbs and teeth which makes it feel straight out of a cartoon, and there are so many other inventive moments like this throughout the film’s runtime. But as the opening fight between two packs suggests this film also has a visceral edge as a dog’s ear comes clean off and there are moments of blood (one character seems to have a talent for getting sharp objects embedded in his skull) which work to make the world of Isle of Dogs feel like it has real stakes and weight.
The violence is never for shock value, however, and always works within the context of the story. The rest of the animation is well served by impeccable directing which knows exactly how to frame the setting, facial expressions, and story beats. The human characters all look and feel distinct, the set-pieces flow beautifully and, visually, there is never a dull moment making the film difficult to fault. The same can be said for the soundtrack which uses a number of native Japanese instruments. It sounds authentic, energised, and gives the film a real gravitas.
The story of a boy searching for his dog on an isle full of abandoned dogs is, at first, easy to follow and works extremely well with a likeable cast of dogs and humans. The dogs, who have their barks translated into English, are contemplative, succinct, and often quite funny. The main five who follow our boy works well as an ensemble but special credit has to go to Bryan Cranston’s ‘Chief’ who has the most important arc in the film and elicits the most emotional beats. The humans, on the other hand, are where the film truly stands out. Given the film is set in Japan, it would be entirely understandable for either the Japanese characters to speak in English or at the very least have subtitles provided, but not here.
Because the characters are so expressive and you understand their motivations you don’t need the subtitles to understand them
While some of the most important dialogue is translated via smart devices or translators, a great deal of it goes untranslated, and this is a huge gamble – meaning large portions of dialogue could easily be unintelligible – except they aren’t. Because the characters are so expressive and you understand their motivations you don’t need the subtitles to understand them. The faith Anderson has in his audience is well-earned, and while it may turn some casual-filmgoers off, if you stick with it, it works so well and it’s refreshing to see this kind of confidence in one’s audience, especially for an animated film. The human characters are compelling, and while they don’t act so much like real people, they are all engaging, Wes Anderson characters; given how strange this film can be, it is for the best.
If the film has any failings it may lie in how complex the plot gets and how little time we get with certain characters because of it. One dog who suffers especially is Scarlet Johansson’s ‘Nutmeg’ who feels like a leftover from an earlier draft that featured her and maybe the dogs more prominently. Johansson performs well but Nutmeg gets lost within the narrative of student protests, Japanese politics, robot dogs, and ancient grudges; all of which work and are paced well, but unfortunately at the cost of getting to know the characters. Thankfully because the film has impeccable pacing, a script that gives its characters likeability and a real sense of adventure, nothing prevents Isle of Dogs from being a truly enjoyable experience. It’s would be hard to recommend it more.