By Andrew Cripe, Movie Critic
Of all the films this critic has had to report on that don’t live up to expectations, Wes Anderson’s latest is the most grueling. It is a spectacular feat in animation, music, and voice acting, but the story as a whole is distracted and hollow.
In its quest to be sprawling, the most interesting parts about it never get a chance to reach their full potential. Just when the viewer thinks they’ll get to spend some time with a beautifully realized plot thread, Anderson tears their attention away to scenes that are so achingly pointless, unfunny, and criminally uninteresting that they sabotage the film.
This stop-motion animated film is set in Japan, where there has been an outbreak of dog-flu so severe that all four-legged-friends are quarantined to a trash-polluted island.
Not wanting to be separated from his beloved dog Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber), 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin) steals a plane and flies to the island to rescue him. He gets injured, so a pack of alpha dogs, led by Chief (Bryan Cranston), make it their duty to guide the little pilot back to his dog.
Now, if the story were just about this adventure, the film would be a monumental success. The scenes between Atari and the dogs are just wonderful. Cranston, along with the other voice actors for the main pack (Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum), are hilarious and moving in their dedication.
The direction of line-readings in this film shows Anderson at his finest, as he won’t allow anyone to phone-in or drone through a single sentence. Everyone’s voice is invested, and everything that is said by the animals has gravity.
Liev Schreiber’s performance as Spots steals the movie in a scene where we see how he met Atari. It is tear-jerkingly beautiful and amongst the best scenes Anderson has ever crafted.
But the movie distracts itself and the viewers instead of focusing on what it does well. There is a subplot involving a group of student activists, led by American foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), trying to uncover a conspiracy about Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), the man who set the quarantine in motion.
Since the film is ultimately trying to tell the story of all the dogs being saved, it makes sense that Anderson would write an angle where the main villain is challenged, but it steals way too much of the screen time away from the real stars of the show: Atari and his dog-friends.
Even worse, the political-intrigue scenes are offensive and disrespectful; Walker, an American, is courageous and daring while the other activists, all Japanese, are cowardly and eager to surrender.
She is the only one determined enough to take down the oppressive, chaotic government officials, while the rest of the citizens are afraid of their own shadow. See the issue? That this film about a boy and his dog turns into a crass white-savior narrative is more than just a flaw: it is a destructive problem.
Also troubling is the film’s dependence on action and violence. This is not a movie that should have action sequences, and yet it does, and they do not work at all. There are points when the story grinds to a halt so the dogs can fight something.
When the film does this it looks visually bad, as the stop-motion, which in subdued moments is amongst the best ever crafted, cannot keep up with all the commotion.
The only thing that is consistently successful about the flow of the film is Alexandre Desplat’s score. The music he has gifted to this film is hair-raising. The last time he worked with Anderson was on ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel,’ and for that he won a much deserved Oscar. His work here is arguably even better.
‘Isle of Dogs’ doesn’t diminish Wes Anderson’s status as one of America’s most unique filmmakers, but it is still a disappointment. It is visually unlike anything else out there, but it echoes his two biggest flops, ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ (2007) and ‘The Life Aquatic’ (2004), in its tone-deafness, meandering story, and lazy wrap-up. If you are a viewer who is devoted to Anderson’s oeuvre, ‘Isle of Dogs’ will likely be another gem for you, but this critic implores you to ask yourself after walking out: was this really the best he could do?