Review: 'Isle of Dogs'

Kyle Winfield | Contributing Writer

Originally published April 2018

“Animated movies are for kids.” It’s a phrase you often hear when people talk about Pixar, Illumination or any other company’s animated film output. And most often, they are right, as every aspect of those is marketed towards kids. However, “Isle of Dogs” is not one of those films, despite it potentially coming off as such.

“Isle of Dogs” is a stop-motion film, directed by Wes Anderson of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” fame, among others, and features the voice talents of Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Kunichi Nomura, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand and Liev Schreiber, to name a few.

The film is about Atari Kobayashi, a Japanese boy, and his journey to find his dog, after a nationwide expulsion of dogs occurs, due to an outbreak of dog diseases which threaten to potentially spread out into the Japanese populace. All dogs have been sent to a small island that had been designated as a garbage dump. Kobayashi bands together with a small group of dogs to search for his own dog, Spots.

Where to begin, when talking about “Isle of Dogs?” The main draw of the film is its use of stop-motion animation, and does it look very impressive. The motions of the dog characters are quite realistic and flow exceptionally well, and the use of the dogs eyes to convey their emotions was a lovely touch. This isn’t to say that the human characters aren’t impressive when looking at their animation, as they are extremely well done.

As with the dogs, many of the humans have very distinct body types or visual quirks that really aid in their characterization. Several times in the film, there will be close-up shots of characters faces as they cry, and the effect used to show the tears as they well up in a characters eyes, before rolling down their cheeks was quite extraordinary.The film isn’t just stop motion. At multiple scenes throughout the film, hand drawn animation is used to represent television footage.

The vocal performances were extremely well done, as one should come to expect, given the cast of this film. However, there were a few characters whose dialogue comes off as a bit stilted or dry, most notably Johansson and Norton’s character’s, although If you have seen a Wes Anderson film, you will come to realize that that kind of muted line delivery is a more stylistic choice on his part, rather than the actors being bad in their roles.

In fact, the oft quirky dialogue is at times aided by said line delivery, which is a staple in Anderson’s previous films.

The backgrounds and scenery are just as impressive, if not more impressive, than the actual animation. The amount detail used in the trash island setting is mindblowing, and is quite diverse than it initially appears. So too are the sets used in the mainland Megasaki sequences, where every stick of furniture and splash of paint feels deliberate and thought-out way in advance.

The film’s score, as composed by Alexandre Desplat, does wonders in enhancing the film, without coming off as overbearing, or underwhelming. It’s just right. As is fitting with the setting and characters of the film, the score includes some traditional Japanese instruments, such as taiko drums, alongside the usual brass and woodwind instruments that we normally come to expect in films.

The one part that I could see American audiences not liking is the abundance of unsubtitled Japanese dialogue. While some of the dialogue is translated by an interpreter (Frances McDormand’s character), or a machine, a fair amount of it is unsubtitled, leaving it up to the audiences to either know Japanese beforehand, or to be able to glean what is being said by reading body language, faces, and character reactions.

Overall, “Isle of Dogs” is a fantastic film that is a showcase of brilliant animation and performances. However, while writing this, I have flip-flopped on whether or not to recommend it.

Anderson’s films are weird, and to some people, that weirdness can make his work come off as inaccessible. But when looking back at it, it is not as weird as some of his previous work. So, in that case I would wholeheartedly recommend “Isle of Dogs.”