Isle of Dogs

Dogs really are the best people.

Get reacquainted with man(kind’s) best friend in review #7: ISLE OF DOGS

This amazingly intricate and unique piece is one of the best I’ve seen all year. Director Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom) delivers a thoroughly entertaining film, full of heart and hilarity. This stop-motion-animation feature boasts hundreds of characters and literally thousands of carefully crafted facial expressions for the key players to wear. The expressivity of creation present in this movie was really a joy to watch, and the star-studded cast makes for a highly entertaining film that will stand the test of time. I gave the film four stars out of five, which is truly exceptional in my book. 4 stars is the highest rating I’ve given any movie in all 7 of my reviews. Gone should go the days of critics handing out five stars, only to be featured throughout plethoras of publications to boost ticket sales. My reviews will retain authenticity, a solid, strictly followed rubric, and hopefully real insight to what makes these movies deserve their unique rating. This one certainly did, and here’s why:

1. Visual

Entire books could be written detailing the supremely complex process a filmmaker undertakes after deciding to create a feature length, stop-motion-animation movie. While I could go into great depth explaining what I’ve learned on the topic, it’s more likely you’ll enjoy this video summarizing the incredible work these teams accomplished: Making of: ISLE OF DOGS. The long and short of it is, this immensely artistic approach to filmmaking is very time consuming, innately intricate and superbly executed by the team at Arch Model Studio. The visuals that these models produce come to life on the screen, telling a story that would not be even remotely rivaled by modern CGI technology. Beyond the mere method of creation and capture, the choice of visual representation is immaculate and super-stylized, just like you’d expect from a Wes Anderson picture. The journey in Isle of Dogs is stunningly visual, and deserves a full star for the effort and execution.

2. Audio

Isle of Dogs benefits from a brilliantly composed and sublimely placed score by Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of WaterThe Grand Budapest Hotel) and includes pieces from Japanese films such as Seven Samurai, and Drunken Angel. The movie is enriched by a recurring thematic track from The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band – titled – I Won’t Hurt You, and uses both sound effects and silence immaculately. An impressively artistic approach to dialogue occurs by avoiding nearly all on-screen subtitles, and allowing Japanese dialogue to express itself in tone and diction alone, rather than through explicit interpretation. The movie begins with a prologue that explains ‘all barks are translated into English’ – so we hear the dogs speak amongst each other, and often inserted newspapers or events are subtitled, but the remainder of the communication expressed in the movie is based on context, which allows viewers to sink into the visual medium completely. Another full star for audio due to this magnificently imagined series of devices.

3. Acting

This category is incredibly tough to critique. Let’s start with the fact that the cast of this film is a star-studded ensemble, with the likes of Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad, Malcolm in the Middle), Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, and even Yoko Ono. It’s an inspired combination of talent, and yet, the film suffers (in this rubric) because the actors are limited to voice-over roles. Does this mean every animated film only deserves a maximum of half-a-star for acting? Possibly. Perhaps the approach should be adjusted in the future to address the allotted range the actors were allowed to access in each film. Either way, there is something lacking due to the limitations of using such an impressive group to vocalizing their characters alone. I’m not certain there’s a solution here, but it seems to me this film cannot justify a full star for acting, seeing as the majority of what qualifies as acting is visual expression. That said, the voice over talent was exceptionally plotted and placed. Nearly every voice is instantly recognizable, and newcomer Koyu Rankin delivers an impassioned depiction of ‘the little pilot’ Atari, who flies to Dog Island to find his best friend. Isle of Dogs is certainly not a traditional film in many respects, but excellent use of talented and known voices do greatly add to the story as a whole. For being a stop-motion-animation movie, but chock full of skillful actors, I carefully give this movie a half star in the acting category.

4. Story

Another interesting category, and the other ding in this review: Although the story itself is well crafted, writer Wes Anderson is catching some flak for utilizing a caucasian character as one of the lynchpins in the final outcome of the tale. Greta Gerwig (Portlandia, The Mindy Project) voices Tracy Walker, a plucky and ambitious high-school senior who helps to unravel the secret plot behind the dog exile. She is one of the only white characters in a sea of Japanese people, and happens to be the catalyst and savior of the story in many ways. Of course, white audiences need someone to identify with also, but it seems this choice was an oversight. Wes Anderson has been criticized in the past for being racially insensitive, and the overall portrayal of the Japanese culture in Isle of Dogs, while sometimes accurate, seems to rely heavily upon our American interpretation of their culture. This may seem a little argumentative, but if you watch the film, you’ll quickly understand what I’m referring to. When Tracy speaks to Yoko Ono’s character (this happens only once), she calls her by her character’s name, which is also incidentally, Yoko. People laughed in the theater at this referral, likely because they interpreted it as an ethnic reference, and not because they understood that was the character’s actual name. The journalism syndicate VICE published a condemning article which speaks to this racial consistency more vibrantly. Check it out here. Beyond that, the story itself was very touching and complete. Wes walks us through the key plot points with Tarantino-esque twists and turns, and utilizes several flash back sequences to fill in the gaps. When the efficacy of the story is combined with the previously mentioned oversight, this category can only muster 1/2 of a star.

5. Style

This is where Isle of Dogs really shines. Forget the thousands of man hours it took to place millions of real alpaca hairs in each individual model. Ignore the artistically displayed foregrounds and backgrounds, and replace the voices with lesser or unknown actors, and this movie is still conceptually and creatively exceptional. Attributes that impressed me most include the way the dogs speak to their owners and each other; keeping their focused attention on one item at a time, and quickly agreeing or disagreeing with topics of discussion, as perhaps real talking dogs would. The immaculate lighting used throughout the film paints an epically artistic portrayal of a world that is magnificently revealed through the talents of Cinematographer Tristan Oliver, known for his work in the stop-motion-animation medium. Combine that with an excellently casted ensemble, non-linear storytelling, and an original plot, and you’ve got the recipe for a film that will entertain for decades to come. This movie gets a full star for its brilliant style.

So there you have it! In addressing comments (not posted) of my previous review, Ready Player One, and how it should have a higher rating overall, I’d like to suggest that the current rating rubric in mainstream media is fundamentally flawed. Of course, it’s not doing the filmmakers any favors to suggest their movie isn’t perfect, especially when there are so many options to choose from, but that’s not really the point of these reviews. From my perspective, I’d be challenged to name even one film that would garner a five star rating based on my approach, and I don’t consider that as casting a negative light on the movies themselves. It only means that I’m preserving the integrity of my reviews in order to highlight the truly exceptional, all-around insightful, and immaculately crafted films that hit the big screen. Any film above three stars (by my calculation) is certainly worth seeing, and I propose we analyze the complexities that have ushered us into an age where we issue a pass/fail rating to entertainment pieces.

Thank you, as always, for reading my humble review. I’m catching up to movies coming out currently, and I’m planning on being caught up in the near future. Cruise over to IMDb to check out the entire synopsis of the film, as well as cast and crew. And hit up Box Office Mojo to see how well this film is doing so far. You can click the underlined words in this paragraph to jump to those pages. Feel free to comment below to discuss some of the points I’ve presented in this article, or provide some of your own. Until next time.

-Neal Schrodetzki

Comments 3

  1. Neal – I really enjoy your thoughtful explanation of your evaluations and the rationale behind them.

    I enjoy reading your reviews also because I learn so much about about movie making. Really well done.

    It is not a stretch to think that your reviews will come to the attention of others in the industry (both movie making and reviewing) and that your work will be referred to on a larger scale in the very near future.


  2. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyway, just wanted to say superb blog! eaaeeeckeadgkgea

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