The 400-Word Review: Isle of Dogs
By Sean Collier
April 10, 2018
Okay, we get it.
I hate to be the “Okay, we get it” critic. But Isle of Dogs, the latest and most deliberately twee creation from the precious mind of Wes Anderson, has firmly passed a tipping point into the unsupportable. It is not as though there aren’t moments of beautiful composition and genuine humor in Isle of Dogs; there certainly are.
But the overarching joke — the behavior study by way of underacting overactors, the dry presentation of absurd detail, the pastiche of indie-rock signifiers — that joke isn’t funny anymore.
Written and directed by Anderson, Isle of Dogs is a painstaking work of stop-motion animation set in a semi-dystopian Japan. A strongman mayor (Kunichi Nomura), the descendent of a long line of cat lovers, has responded to an explosion in the dog population by deporting all canines to a trash-covered island. This includes Spots (Liev Schreiber), the faithful servant of the mayor’s adopted son (Koyu Rankin).
The lad launches a daring rescue attempt, crash-landing a tiny plane on the island. He’s taken in by a quintet of alpha dogs — voiced by Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray and Bob Balaban — who decide to help him find Spots.
En route, there are other dogs voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham and Tilda Swinton; there are other humans voiced by Greta Gerwig, Yoko Ono, Frances McDormand and Ken Watanabe. The greatest pleasure in Anderson’s movies, moments of very subtle comedy by its best practitioners, is intact.
The journey, however, is dull and plodding. The humor cannot sustain a progression of events limited by the time-consuming work of creating stop-motion sets, nor is the frequent beauty of the stagecraft a replacement for a likable story.
Then, of course, there is the question of propriety as it relates to the fetishization of Japanese culture. Anderson seems to have a cartoonish, anime-and-sushi-joint understanding of his setting, which he slathers with souvenir-store cat faces and samurai cliches. It’s not so much cultural appropriation as it is willful cultural misrepresentation (although you could write a dissertation about the decision to have the humans speak unsubtitled Japanese and the dogs speak American English).
Anderson seems to think that we’ll overlook the problematic aspect of Isle of Dogs, and its numerous other shortcomings, because he’s just so gosh-darned earnest. Unfortunately, he can only cash in those chips so many times.
My Rating: 4/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark