One of the nice things about the indie scene of cinema is that there always seems to be a little more going on behind the scenes. By this I’m referring to the political or moral messaging/symbolism behind what’s presented in film.
In some cases, this is as simple as good versus evil or always be a good person, while others tend to be more ambiguous with what they’re trying to say. It makes a film-watching experience all-the-more mentally satisfying trying to piece together and theorize the underlying themes and messages of what’s presented.
The newest film by one Wes Anderson, responsible for films such as The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Rushmore, falls more in line with the straightforward. It presents a scenario that many have become adjusted to despising through more child-appropriate programming and otherwise: fighting back against fascism and dictatorships.
Isle of Dogs uses the subject of the relationship between humans and dogs as a catalyst for common human decency, brought through by the dogs’ personification throughout the film.
A disease has spread throughout dogkind and a cat-loving family in power wish to gather them up under the pretense of civilian safety and drop them off on an island full of garbage. When the adopted nephew of the fascist leader of Japan has his dog taken away, he goes on a quest to travel to the Isle of Dogs and retrieve him, meeting the focal cast of dog characters along the way.
What becomes remarkably apparent from the first few minutes is just how dedicated to the craft of stop-motion animation this film is. Perhaps not on the same level as Studio Laika (Coraline, Kubo and the Two Strings), but its eccentric display of flair, color, and the gentle appreciation of other cultures is both charming and entertaining to a fault.
It opens with a bang: big taiko drums being played to set the mood of the dominance of the Japanese family in power. Already the viewer must acknowledge that what they’ve sat down to indulge in won’t be like many they typically see. The animation accompanying rarely falters, though tends to shift facial expressions a hair too quickly. Humor and mood are set by the characters and their dialogue more often than the animation, though it happens on some occasions.
What this film manages to achieve through its runtime is constant and undeniable entertainment. Its manner of execution, difference in culture, and uncanny style of animation gives this an indie feel without being specifically marketed to that audience. I never once looked down at my watch until well over an hour into the film. Not many can hold my undivided attention for that long.
For all that it’s worth, however, the simple line of moral messaging is too overdone to make it seem more than what it is. Being mean is bad; we should be nice to people when we have the means to fix the problem. Having prejudices is bad.
It’s all been done before with more nuance and subtlety. Isle of Dogs isn’t necessarily flawed for its approach, but it does little to distinguish itself from the pack within its genre.
At the same time, there’re some issues with character focus, notably with a core group of dogs who, initially, seem equally important, only to have one specifically be important and the rest expendable. I thought this was a missed opportunity to tell something a little more intricate in terms of background and motivation, though I suppose Anderson didn’t want to make the film longer than it needed to be. Add in a random female dog to serve as a love interest only and you have your potentially problematic cocktail for the day.
Isle of Dogs is a lot more substantial for its execution of straightforward entertainment and animated quirkiness than much else. Its dedication to providing a message of individuality is always appreciated by someone who firmly believes in free will, but against so standard a group of villains and how cheesy it all comes across lacks the impact I come to expect from great films.
I would still recommend it to the common moviegoer, and perhaps even some pre-teens interested in seeing something a little different. It does, at the same time, fall short of what it may have been with more focus on characters and potential dual-sided motivations.
Final Score: 7/10