Isle of Dogs: Too Much Quirk, Not Enough Substance

Wes Anderson, king of quirk, has long been gathering a liege of dedicated cinephiles who drool over his every film. And, I confess, I am one of his long-time fans. Especially considering the incredibly high expectations set by his previous film, 2014’s multi-Oscar winning The Grand Budapest Hotel. However, if you go into the cinema to watch Isle of Dogs expecting another of Anderson’s masterpieces, I would lower your expectations.

The film is set in a dystopian future Japan where all dogs have been banished from the mainland to a trash island by an authoritarian cat-loving government. We follow a young boy, Atari (Koyu Rankin), as he runs away, flying to the island on a homemade rocket plane, to rescue his banished and loved pet dog. Meanwhile on the mainland, a group of schoolchildren conspiracy theorists set out to investigate the questionable government policies that led to the dogs being banned in the first place.

Sounds complicated? That’s because it is. The main way that Anderson’s film falls short is his long and unnecessarily convoluted storyline. Two films are really happening at once here: the adventure story of a young boy exploring undiscovered and dangerous lands in a noble rescue mission, and a political drama about schoolchildren uncovering murky political secrets. The constant cross-cutting between the two dramas is jarring and somehow manage to make Anderson’s 105-minute film drag, and feel much longer than it already is.

The narrative flaws do not, however, detract from the significant aesthetic achievement of this film. Stop motion is a medium in which Anderson has previously thrived in, in films like Fantastic Mr Fox, and the medium beautifully works with Anderson’s pedantic attention to visual detail. Anderson’s trademark style, with his obsessively symmetrical mid-shots and very specific use of colour and visuals to evoke mood, is masterfully deployed as ever. Despite a questionable use of Japanese culture which many are calling out as appropriation, Cinephiles and devotees of the Wes Anderson filmography will eat up the clearly very well-planned aesthetics.

However, aesthetics alone does not make a film worth watching, and ‘quirkiness’ is not enough to make a story interesting. While Anderson’s visual flare, impressive ensemble of voice talent, and overall style are commendable, there’s not enough substance here to really dig your teeth into. My recommendation? Go re-watch The Grand Budapest Hotel instead.

3 stars

Jo Bradley

One Comment Add yours

  1. Can’t agree. I wasn’t a fan of “Grand Budapest Hotel”, seemed like a film with too little substance for me to care about it. But “Isle of Dogs” has charmed with both visual layer and the story. I loved the way it played with the Japanese culture influences, how it used the stop motion and Anderson’s trademarks. But interesting to see that to you it wasn’t quite what I felt 😉 If you want to, check out my thoughts about “Isle of Dogs” on my website!


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