ISLE OF DOGS: A Bit Mechanical But Not Without Its Charms

Opening this evening at an indie art house near me:

ISLE OF DOGS (Dir. Wes Anderson, 2018)

In more than one interview, Wes Anderson has specified that his latest stop motion animated film (his second following 2009’s THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX) was largely influenced by legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, and in a very Wes Andersony twist, those classic Rankin Bass Christmas specials like “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reigndeer.”

It’s a suitably quirky combination for the suitably quirky writer/director/producer, and for the most part it works, but I couldn’t help from thinking that the execution of ISLE OF DOGS is a bit too mechanical to really take hold.

That’s not saying I didn’t enjoy a great deal of the film as it’s well made, has a rich voice cast, pleasing visuals, and some amusing ideas. And I know that the criticism “too mechanical” is an odd one to make as the machinery of Anderson’s style has been detectable from the beginning of his career in BOTTLE ROCKET, but I still found too many beats to be predictable, too many times that gags felt forced, and too many moments that were supposed to be emotional (I think) that made me think ‘meh.’

The narrative, which is set in Japan 20 years in the future, concerns a 12-year old named Atari Kobayashi (voiced by Koyu Rankin) who travels to Trash Island, where all of the country’s dogs have been banished because of a canine flu virus, to find his lost dog Spots.

Atari is helped in his quest by five mangy dogs: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray, and Chief (Bryan Cranston). You see, an opening title tells us

Cranston’s Chief is the most dominant dog, and has the most interesting back story as he scoffs at the formerly domesticated others as he’s a stray saying things like “You’re talking like a bunch of housebroken…pets.”

Meanwhile, in subplot B, Greta Gerwig voices a pro-dog American exchange student Tracy Walker, who has a crush on Atari and leads a campaign against his evil uncle, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), whilst finding out from Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono (voiced by Yoko Ono – that’s right) that a cure has been suppressed by the dog hating Mayor.

You got that? Well, it doesn’t matter as Anderson treats all these plot points so nonchalantly that they hold very little weight. I mean, that’s fine – everyone hits their marks, melancholy music plays, and it’s all played for maximum cuteness. If you’re a hardcore Wes Anderson fan, I bet this will be like the cinematic equivalent of crack cocaine, but being a more casual fan (I’ve only RUSHMORE once!), it was a pleasant but unremarkable experience. It felt like a great production design, and cast looking for a great movie.

But whatever your stance – don’t go see it for its cast. Sure, one of the most striking things in the trailers, posters, etc. is the sheer amount of its star power – Cranston, Norton, Murray, Goldblum, Frances McDormand, Liev Schreiber, Harvey Keitel, Scarlett Johanssen, Tilda Swinton, Angelica Huston, and Fisher Stevens as Scrap (I so want that to be the new “and Jerry Mathers as the Beaver”) – but beyond Cranston, Gerwig, Norton and a few others, most of these famous folks don’t make much of a mark. I can’t remember a single moment that Murray owned, and I bet Johanssen recorded her lines in less than 10 minutes.

Although it felt a bit off to me, ISLE OF DOGS is not without its charms. The attention to detail (one of Anderson’s strengths) in the animation is superbly presented (despite how dire the landscape of Trash Island), and there’s some earned warmth between a few of the characters. I also loved how there were clouds of flailing limbs popping in and out when the dogs fought like in old cartoons.

It has come under some fire for criticisms of its appropriation of Japanese culture, but it never struck me as being anything but a respectful homage – except for the fact that Japanese-speaking characters aren’t given subtitles while a opening disclaimer tells us that all of the dogbarks have been rendered into English.

So his second stab at stop motion animation isn’t as funny, poignant, or memorable as his first, THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX, but Anderson has yet again succeeded in making something that nobody can do as well: make another Wes Anderson film. It
ll more than do until the next one.

More later…

Every Movie I’ve Ever Seen Ranked (You Won’t Believe What’s #4081!)

Sorry for the clickbaitastic headline, and as you might’ve guessed I’m not going to really rank every movie I’ve ever seen (but if you’re wondering what #4081 is – it’s John Schlesinger’s PACIFIC HEIGHTS, pictured above, which is a solid #4081). I just wanted to call out those ever so prevalent pop culture lists that rank every Tarantino movie, or Beatles song, or Seinfeld episode from worst to best. Like these*: 

All 49 Marvel Movies Ranked, Including ‘Black Panther’ 

Every Best Picture Oscar Winner, Ranked: How All 90 Movies Stack Up 

Every James Bond Movie Ranked from Worst to Best (also The Best James Bond Actors, Ranked, Ranking: James Bond Theme Songs From Worst to Best, etc) 

All X-Files Episodes, Ranked Best to Worst (this one is actually from a site called Complete Works: Ranking All 374 Rolling Stones Songs 

* Im not linking to any of these, so you are are your own finding these if you want.

Now, I’m not against lists – I’ve posted plenty of them on this blog – I just don’t like it where there’s dozens and dozens of entries of whatever pop culture thing as they aren’t very useful. I mean, if you rank the Beatles
 studio albums, there’s only like a dozen of them so somebody approaching their catalog might benefit from the recommendations of Revolver or Sgt. Pepper or whatever records are high on the list, but what good does it do anybody to know that thinks that “Rocky Raccoon” from The While Album is #166 out of #213? 

Now, I know some people like these lists, and find them fun enough to share and argue about, etc. but I usually skip them. The ones I do click on, I just skim them quickly and move on. I find Top 10 lists, or 20 at the most, to be more useful. 

The lists I get most annoyed by are the ones that basically say ‘hey, that thing you like sucks’ like these: 

12 Movies You Probably Love That Are Overrated, According To Reddit 

15 Overrated Movies Everyone Pretends To Love 

5 Recent Movies That Got Way More Praise Than They Deserved 

I particularly don’t like the word overrated because to me it means: I hate this thing that everyone likes, and they’re wrong (underrated being the obvious opposite: I love this thing that everyone hates, and they’re wrong). 

Yeah, I know that the words 
overrated and underrated are ubiquitous in our culture, and aren’t going away any time soon, but I don’t use them on my blog because I find them to be meaningless.

One strong case against them is that President Trump uses the word “overrated” a lot – he’s used it to insult former President Barack Obama (no surprise there), Meryl Streep, Jerry Seinfeld, Megyn Kelley, the musical Hamilton, and politicians in general (again, no surprise). I don’t think he’s ever said that anything or anyone is “underrated,” because he probably doesn’t know that word. 

Lately, I have been trying to not be on social media too much as I get really annoyed by these things, and stuff like long lists that have slideshows so they can fit in more ads, but I’m not going to get started on those. 

This concludes my rant. Stay tuned for coverage of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival that kicks off this Thursday, April 5, and for reviews of upcoming films like Wes Anderson’s * ISLE OF DOGS, and the roster of highly anticipated summer films around the corner. 

* A filmmaker who is often considered overrated.

More later…