'Isle of Dogs' Review - A Dogs Tale Where Humans Get in the Way
Wes Anderson has a language all is own cinematically and it is on display all through the runtime of his latest film, 'Isle of Dogs' which he, Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola and Kunichi Nomura penned collectively. The pieces in which we see the dogs who reside on the isle of the title featured prominently are the strongest. The human factor is where some slip is experienced.
Towards Anderson's language, the choice was made not to provide subtitles for the Japanese speaking characters outright but instead either have their words translated out loud by another character, appear on a teleprompter or just remain a mystery to anyone who is unfamiliar with the language. You never feel lost but you do feel disconnected to them in a way you never feel towards the canines who inhabit the landscape. If the whole film took place from the dogs point of view then this would be a great consistency since it is established rather early that the now sequestered pets do not actually understand the language of their former masters. Unfortunately the rule only exists partially so you are caught between moments where we get translations and where we are left on our own to decipher unless you speak Japanese. I would have rather that we go full mutt POV and let the actions of the humans speak for themselves which does happen but then we revert to having a third party relay the Japanese dialogue. It creates an unneeded disconnect to those characters.
The story works really well though and the film hits on some great emotional spots while getting you invested in the dogs who have been left to die on a trash island and the young boy who is searching for his friend. Which brings the second point of the film. It's not pleasant at every turn. There is some real ugliness on display not only in the scenery itself but in the actions of humans to the animals they once housed. The cruelty of man is on full display and is not concerned with upsetting you. On two occasions the visuals lent itself to even darker parallels of the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima. The gated entryway to a work camp for dogs with words carved out the wrought iron may as well say "Work Sets You Free". It threw me off. It's a very strong visual that seems a bit outside of Anderson's comfort zone of portraying.
The ugliness I speak of in the other pieces of the island are rather spectacular though. Anderson's work within the frame may be the best around and here is no exception. So much of this film is a wonder to watch. Ugly yes, but beautifully crafted ugly. Perfectly executed boxes of cinema that unfold like origami revealing layer upon layer of craftsmanship.
The voice cast is all on point and speaks of a masters collection from Bryan Cranston's Chief to Jeff Goldblum's gossipy Duke. Everyone seems bred (sorry) to recite Anderson-speak. Only issue here is that much of the female cast is there to solely expand on the male characters. Frances McDormand is an interpreter. That's all. An amazing one who does create the drama of press conferences and political speeches but little to do beyond read back what is said in a foreign tongue. It reminded me of the joke Sigourney Weaver nails in 'Galaxy Quest' when she exclaims how she has "one job" to do on the ship. If that were the only blot then it would have not bothered me but with a dearth of females on the call sheet, it sticks out. Scarlett Johansson is note perfect as the droll show dog Nutmeg, but whose main function seems to act as a center attraction for Cranston's aforementioned Chief. Greta Gerwig perhaps has the most to do as the feisty Tracy Walker but every time we went to catch up with the humans I just wanted to get back to the horrors of the island and its new residents.
'Isle of Dogs' is highly enjoyable despite my minor holdups. I cared for Chief and his pack of ever voting pals. I wanted them to save the day and one another. Despite my disinterest in the humans, when the scene is simply a boy and a dog, it soars. No one is second-hand translating the young boy as he speaks to man's former best friend but you never need it. You probably did not need it through the entire runtime. The visual storytelling more than does the job as interpreter. The heart is with the dogs and more than enough of the reel circles that ground to make another fine addition to the Anderson library. It does not reach the heavenly heights of his last offering in 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' and does fall slightly below the stop motion manic of 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' but there is a ton of beauty and emotion to find among the bleakness that is 'Isle of Dogs".