Isle of Dogs

Mitch Ringenberg and Sam Watermeier are both big fans of Wes Anderson, but they found themselves surprisingly underwhelmed by his latest effort, Isle of Dogs. So, they decided to join forces in working through their disappointment with the auteur’s second venture into stop-motion animation. 

 

Mitch: Anderson’s ninth directorial feature, Isle of Dogs is his first film since 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which I found to be a beautiful summation of the themes and visual motifs he has touched on throughout his career. It’s also his second time working with stop-motion animation, after 2009’s decidedly more kid-friendly Fantastic Mr. Fox. Anderson is a director whose career I’ve found a bit inconsistent, although films like Rushmore and Bottle Rocket are among my favorite comedies of the past couple decades. So, Sam, in terms of quality, where does Isle of Dogs rank for you in Anderson’s filmography?

Sam: It didn’t sweep me away like I hoped it would. I was definitely bewitched by the film’s world, a barren wasteland where dogs roam in exile. Their native homeland, Megasaki City, is much like America at the moment — a dystopia whose harsh leader seemingly wants to rid the land of all innocence. However, as arresting as these settings are, I felt like they lacked compelling characters. Bryan Cranston’s Chief, the stray dog at the center of the action, is easily the most engaging part of the film. I had a lukewarm reaction to the rest of the ensemble. Sure, it’s fun to hear Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray and Edward Norton bring their voices to these furry creatures, but I guess the novelty of that quickly wore off for me. I don’t know. I liked this film. I just wanted to love it. It may be my least favorite Anderson movie. (Keep in mind that I’d still give it 3.5 out of 5 stars if I had to rate it.)

You told me the film also fell flat for you at certain points. Which aspects of it didn’t work for you?

Mitch: Well, I want to preemptively state that, for the most part, I found the movie pretty delightful. I guess Anderson has become one of those filmmakers from whom I expect a wholly transporting experience, so the fact that I came away from this merely liking it was a bit disappointing. You and I seem to have pretty similar gripes, and ultimately, I think my main complaint would be that Isle of Dogs feels like Anderson staying firmly in his comfort zone, which is ironic given the attention to detail in the gorgeous stop-motion animation and the dystopian setting, which is vastly dissimilar from anything in his previous films. The dry wit was just as present as ever in the dialogue, and the methodical visual flair no doubt remains, but neither of those elements felt quite as effective to me.

As you said, none of the characters outside of Cranston’s Chief resonated with me, and I found myself mildly disinterested at times in the overall story. There’s been a lot of negative discussion surrounding the film’s Japanese setting, and while I don’t necessarily have the interest or vocabulary to go too far into it, that backdrop did feel superfluous — even with the obvious parallels to our own country.

Since it seems we’re both in agreement about Isle being minor Anderson, what would you like to see him do next?

Sam: My favorite Anderson films are the ones whose settings feel familiar yet otherworldly. Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums capture the magic in the mundane. Bottle Rocket follows a guy trying to make his life feel like a heist movie and become part of something bigger than himself. Rushmore taps into the idea of how one’s school can feel like another planet. The Royal Tenenbaums shows how our family members seem at once ordinary and mythic, vulnerable yet immortal. These films are grounded in reality yet larger than life. They feel like tall tales without diving head first into fantasy landscapes.

I’m not knocking Anderson’s animated adventures or more whimsical live-action films. Despite their more outlandish nature, their worlds feel remarkably lived-in and human. I guess I’m just curious to see him return to his roots. How about you?

Mitch: That’s an excellent point about his earlier work capturing the “magic in the mundane.” I’d enjoy seeing him return to simpler, more human dramedy. While I love Budapest, it’s essentially a live-action cartoon with the overt silliness of its characters and madcap adventure. This is a tired complaint yet I can’t help but think Anderson has grown too enamored with his own stylistic obsessions and thus his characters have gotten lost in the mix. Once again, we’re seemingly in lockstep here; I think in previous films like Rushmore (my personal favorite of his), Anderson’s distinct style worked on a character and thematic level. I didn’t get much of that here. Unfortunately, Isle indicates that it might be time for him to change things up.

Sam: I agree. And I felt like Fantastic Mr. Fox was a much more successful stop-motion effort. My heart ached for the characters, and I found myself completely immersed in their world — like a child wrapped up in a bedtime story. It radiated with the warmth of a loved one’s voice. As the film washed over me, my mind flooded with memories of my mom reading me Roald Dahl books when I was a little boy. 

Isle of Dogs, on the other hand, left me feeling a bit detached, lacking a strong sense of childlike wonder and discovery. Like you, I was often delighted, but to a lesser degree than I was during Fantastic Mr. Fox. However, I’d still recommend the film, and I’d like to stress that Anderson’s minor work is still much better than the major work of many filmmakers.

All right, let’s geek out now and rank his films! Hell, I enjoy all of these.

Wes Anderson Ranked

Mitch:

  1. Rushmore
  2. Bottle Rocket
  3. The Royal Tenenbaums
  4. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  5. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
  6. Fantastic Mr. Fox
  7. Moonrise Kingdom
  8. The Darjeeling Limited
  9. Isle of Dogs

Sam:

  1. Rushmore
  2. Bottle Rocket
  3. The Royal Tenenbaums
  4. Fantastic Mr. Fox
  5. The Darjeeling Limited
  6. Moonrise Kingdom
  7. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
  8. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  9. Isle of Dogs


Sam Watermeier has been a film critic since practically before he was born, as he almost popped out of his mother's womb in a movie theater during the drawn-out conclusion of The Godfather Part III. Sam started professionally in 2009 at NUVO Newsweekly, not only contributing movie reviews but also profiles of local filmmakers and previews of Indy film festivals. He also writes reviews and commentaries for the Indy-based website The Film Yap. In 2015, Sam was inducted into the Indiana Film Journalists Association.


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