Isle of Dogs opens at the Roxy Thu., April 12.
You could take a still from nearly any moment of any given Wes Anderson picture and it would make a piece of art worthy of hanging on the wall. That rich color palette, symmetrical framing and fastidious attention to detail is more Anderson than ever in his latest stop-motion feature, Isle of Dogs. Plus, there’s the vintage soundtrack. I’m thinking of one scene in particular: From a bird’s-eye view, we look down on a Japanese chef meticulously chopping fish, pulling the guts out, rolling the cuts into sushi rolls and so on. It looks so damn cool that I find myself doubly disappointed that the story fails to move me.
Isle of Dogs marks Anderson’s second attempt at stop-motion animation after 2009’s irrepressibly charming The Fantastic Mr. Fox. This time we’re in near-future Japan, where an outbreak of various dog-specific illnesses has divided the people along political lines of pro- or anti-dog. The nation’s domestic pets have been deported to the titular Isle of Dogs, where they roam the garbage-littered landscape in scruffy packs. The dogs speak English to one another (the script swiftly explains away translation logistics through title cards, helpfully.) Is there anything cuter than a talking animal? I don’t know, ask the grown woman two rows behind me in the theater who couldn’t stop audibly cooing throughout the film’s 100-minute run time.
The plot centers around a little boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin) who crash-lands on the island in search of his dog Spot. There he runs into a stray named Chief (Bryan Cranston), followed in short order by the charismatic naysayer Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban) and a gossip named Duke (Jeff Goldblum). The dogs are funny, and the interplay between them represents the story’s greatest strength.
I liked the movie less when it zoned out to include the hustle and bustle of the world at large. There are grand speeches translated into English with gusto by Frances McDormand, and scientists who scramble to create a cure for the dog flu, despite the inhospitable political climate. A precocious foreign exchange student named Tracy (Greta Gerwig) gets involved. And Atari is an important man’s son—is the father dead or alive? It depresses me that I don’t care, because I usually care a lot! Despite a boy being separated from his dog and the grisly details of the terrible dog flu, overall the story lacks the emotional resonance I’ve come to crave from an Anderson picture. And the presentation is weirdly sloppy to boot.
Anderson is at his best when he’s illustrating the dull heartbreak that exists among families, people who love each other, and the strange intersections in between. In Isle of Dogs, Tracy shares a mini -revelation that she has a crush on Atari, and all it inspired in me was an aching wish that I was back on the beach with those 12-year olds showing me what true first love really looks like in 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom.
So, do I recommend Isle of Dogs or not? The question has been torturing me for days, I don’t mind telling you. Compared to Anderson’s previous eight pictures, this is my least favorite, but even so, it’s still kind of awesome. Remember in 1987 when Roger Ebert failed to recommend Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket on the same episode he approved of Benji the Hunted? Do you judge the art on its own merit or in relation to the artist’s overall body of work? Given that I recommended The Dark Tower this summer for literally no good reason, I can’t not recommend Isle of Dogs. Just temper your expectations.