‘Isle of Dogs’ is a visually stunning low point for Wes Anderson

James Preston Poole

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and the same seems true of Wes Anderson.

Frequently proclaimed an auteur, Anderson charmed his way into the hearts of moviegoers everywhere with films such as “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Rushmore.” Anything he creates generates hype, and his latest is no exception. In many ways a spiritual sequel to his first stop-motion animated film, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Isle of Dogs” is, regrettably, a significant step down from that film. 

The story sounds promising enough. Set in near-future Japan, the outbreak of the dreaded “canine flu” has caused all dogs to be relocated to a polluted island. This is where our central pack of pups — Chief, Rex, King, Box and Duke, voiced by Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum, respectively — resides, comfortable in their mundane existence until a plane crashes on their island.

Out of the plane hops Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), a young boy looking for his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). Reluctantly, Chief leads the pack of dogs to help young Kobayashi on his quest, setting the stage for what is supposed to be a rollicking adventure. 

At the very least, the visuals match Anderson’s grand intent. The amount of detail in the characters and settings that populate Anderson’s vision is magnificent. Colors from all parts of the spectrum suck the viewer in and refuse to let go, making sure the eyes are constantly engaged.

On most aesthetic levels, this film succeeds. Having all characters speak in their native language, with the barks translated into English is both respectful and really unique, while the triumphant score is another notch on Alexandre Desplat’s prolific belt.

It’s a shame that not as much care was given to the other aspects of the film. Anderson has made an empty movie more interested in quirks than actual storytelling, something he’s never been guilty of.

The main storyline is fine. It hits all the mandatory story beats you’d expect from a family adventure, while Cranston and Norton do an excellent job bickering over who the real leader is, supported by decent turns from the other dogs’ voice actors. I’d be remiss in not mentioning that the relationship between Atari and Chief is genuinely heartwarming and tear-jerking.

Nevertheless, when an unnecessary plot twist is employed at the beginning of the third act, the story begins to devolve. “Unnecessary” would describe many of the tangents that dominate the back half of this film, actually.

A series of plot threads and characters, from Atari’s mayor uncle trying to retain control of the dog ban to a foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) trying to prove a conspiracy correct, are woven in poorly and are as lifeless as can be. It’s hard to believe that anyone would be more invested in the legal battles against the mayor than in the adventure with talking animals.

Moreover, the cast, aside from those mentioned before, sound incredibly bored, as if Anderson had only one take to record them. This carelessness extends to the tone, where the movie seems constantly confused as to what it wants to be. At some points, it feels incredibly adult; at others, it feels borderline G-rated.

The biggest crime here is just how unmemorable it all turns out to be. The visuals are expectedly excellent, yes, but “Isle of Dogs” simply does not have the “it” factor that’s made Wes Anderson so popular. Instead, “Isle of Dogs” is a pretty but hollow film that is easily forgotten as soon as one leaves the theater.

  • “Isle of Dogs”
  • Running Time: 101 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13
  • Score: 2.5/5 stars