Isle of Dogs

People who know me are generally annoyed at how much I dislike animation, and they're probably baffled at how I claim to hate cartoons, while I read lots of comics and children's books. I make those grand statements about what I love and hate, as we all do, but I think I give things a fair chance, case by case. I went to see Isle of Dogs (2018) expecting to like it, as it's a Wes Anderson movie, for one thing, and I read or heard that it's stop-motion animation, which I believe is a technique I've been pretty fond of in the past. It has a very low-tech look, the feeling of real objects, with a kind of dripping patina of imperfection and decay. Stop-motion in general, and this film in particular, is night and day removed from the look and feel of much of the contemporary computer animation (which I've seen so little of I have trouble thinking of examples of) that is what comprises most of the kid's movies being made. I don't know why really, but that stuff just really annoys me at best, and more often, just totally creeps me out—but that's a subject for another time, because there's none of that here.

I liked everything about how this movie looked. It's on one hand really nostalgic, and made me think about the cartoons and animated shows I watched growing up, in particular, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), which I've watched every year for over 50 years (in spite of some major problems I have with it). There are also images that brought back deep memories of various children's books where I was often misinterpreting images, perhaps, but they accessed a deep part of the psyche. But also, there's stuff here I've never seen, and that's really the most interesting. I like this movie so much visually, that I'd like to watch it again immediately. I'll probably hold off, however, until I can watch it at home and maybe pause on, and repeat some things—but most significantly I might watch it with the sound off—and that, for me, might be indicative of my problem with this movie, which has to do with the story, the dialogue, and the relationship of the characters with their voices. While I'd miss the sound design, which naturally enhances the images, I'm wondering if it might be a better experience if all the talking was removed.

I'm a huge admirer, if not a huge fan, of Wes Anderson movies, and it occurred to me that it might be fun to rank his movies by favorites, and I noticed that there is some of this online (of course). I might do that some day (it's a good excuse to return to someone's work you haven't seen in awhile), though there are still a couple of his films I haven't seen, including an earlier stop-motion kids' story, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), plus, I might wait until he makes his best movie ever, or at least one I like more than The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) (probably my favorite so far). While I've sometimes found myself less than interested on his takes on sex and love, I'm kind of intrigued with his obsession with head injuries (again explored in this movie)—though maybe I can just find that discussed somewhere; I've never read or heard an interview with Wes Anderson. But as someone who can't seem to escape his childhood (that's me, I'm not saying that's him), I feel I relate on some deep levels, including unrepentant nerdom (I was the kid who organized the neighborhood “Olympics” and drew endless cut-away diagrams of submarines disguised as sea monsters).

It was the obsessive nerdom of this story that first drew me in, but then, ultimately, separated me from it. It's a basic good vs. evil, underdog prevails, action adventure with lots and lots of physical altercation (though I very much appreciated how we were spared much of this, as each fight would be expressed by a hyper-accelerated cloud of dust). But the plot became so protracted and convoluted that it had to be explained by excessive exposition (in script form, this would never have gotten by a prickly intern). There was, no exaggeration, ten times too much story for me. I got bored, my mind wandered—it was like having someone who's into some kind of gaming that you know nothing about sit down and explain their game for two hours. I feel like this could have been an excellent 50 minute TV special, but it was stretched out to twice that length. Besides the piled on, unnecessary, nerd tech, science, and warcraft details, the love stories here were the worst thing, and particularly the dog love story, because when you meld human and animal personalities, it gets a little weird. That was one of the problems I always had with Rudolph, and similar to Clarice's way too mature voice, the female dog here, just talking about her “tricks” should have gotten the movie an R rating. Maybe I'm somewhat of a prude, but I look away when I see a couple of dogs humping, and the constant anxiety of seeing that here is like seeing it.

Maybe that's just a problem with giving animals human voices; there's always going to be a place where it becomes uncomfortable. In this movie, however, my larger problem was that the voices, in a lot of cases, are recognizable actors. That might just be a way of being able to sell the movie with name recognition (a concept, when it pertains to voice actors, that I find ridiculous), but here I think it really detracts from the story. It seems like some of the stars, who are good actors, don't feel the need to refrain from overacting with their voice—or maybe can't pull it off. I imagine that it's a very particular talent, doing it well, that isn't necessarily the same as screen acting (the same way that theater and movie acting are different things).

The interesting approach in this movie was to “translate” the dogs' voices into English, while not translating the human Japanese characters at all (the story is set in Japan, by the way), so that, if you're not a Japanese speaker, you have to figure out what's going on by the action (there was an occasional subtitle and external translation). This would be a very different movie for a Japanese and not English speaker, who would see the movie with the dogs' English subtitled. I think it would be a better movie, on one hand, but all the reading you'd have to do, you'd miss the amazing expressiveness of the animated dogs faces. For me, what was great about this movie was how much story and expression could be evoked just by the faces and movements of the dogs; both the insights of the artists and filmmakers here, into the nature of dogs, and their unique relationships with humans. You didn't need all that runaway dialog. Which is why I'll be intrigued to watch it silent, some day. There was one image that really stuck with me—it was one of the human characters, a Japanese hacker (who ultimately saves the day for everyone)—there is just this crude, animated shot of him, as he turns and looks at the camera, with an expression of high intelligence, impatient anger, and stunted social skills—you just know that guy. It's a reminder of how much of a visual medium film is, and how little you need, quite often, all those words, words, words.

Randy Russell 5.22.18