Can a film get 5-star reviews and still be underappreciated? Isle of Dogs says yes. writes Toby Wyant.
While it received some awards buzz after its release and was even nominated for an Oscar, I still feel like it’s underrated. I have the bold claim to make that it’s easily one of the best films of the 21st century, and while it got some praise few of them reflected the excellence of the film. There are of course two sides to this charge of underappreciation: the first is the question of why Isle of Dogs fell flatter than it should have, and the other of why it’s a great film.
To answer my last question first, Isle of Dogs’ successes were to a great extent because it was absolutely classic Anderson. Compare it to Grand Budapest Hotel: Symmetrical shots, meticulous colour palates, breakneck deadpan dialogue, and endearing character writing are all stock Wes Anderson. Which isn’t to say Anderson didn’t branch out, Isle of Dogs being his first animated feature since Fantastic Mr Fox and his first original animated film. All said, I’m not entirely certain that Wes Anderson is even capable of making a film that isn’t excellent; the question then is to ask why Isle of Dogs didn’t see the universal acclaim it should have. Isle of Dogs’ biggest problem overlaps with perhaps its greatest appeal: animation.
There are few risks a director can take bigger than choosing to tell a story in stop motion. Not only is animation in general incredibly time-consuming and expensive, stop-motion is to animation what animation is to live action, compounding all the production issues caused by making an animated film. This is not to say that it doesn’t pay off: Wallace and Gromit, Coraline, Kubo and the Two Strings, and approximately a thousand Tim Burton films all come to mind. Simply that stop-motion constitutes a huge creative risk. For Isle of Dogs, the choice to make the film stop motion did two things: The first was to remind audiences of Fantastic Mr Fox. While an excellent film, Fantastic Mr Fox was first and foremost a kid’s film.
Isle of Dogs is not a kid’s film. I remember vividly watching the very first scene of Isle of Dogs in the theatre: a main character biting off the ear of another dog and spitting it somewhat gorily to the ground resulted in audible gasps from an audience of parents who had brought their children to the cinema expecting a film in the milieu of Fantastic Mr Fox. The dogs in Isle of Dogs are not sanitised. The film in fact relishes, as Anderson always does, doing all it can to subvert our expectations.
The second effect Isle of Dog’s animation had was to obscure the absurd star power the film had. A live action film would have been able to use the faces of the film’s various superstars in its advertising and posters. Instead, fairly or not, Isle of Dogs had to depend much more on its own appeal. I’m not a fan of using famous actors to sell films, but it’s a fact that people often turn up to see an actor they like. This is why many animated films go to unsettling lengths to make the characters in the films look like their famous voice actors - the execrable Shark Tale, for instance.
Wes Anderson’s commitment to doggy realism in this sense did something to hurt the popularity of Isle of Dogs, albeit with the benefit of immense artistic integrity. Instead people turned up to be told a story, and not for Bryan Cranston, Scarlet Johannsson, Yoko Ono or anyone else. The films’ writing is at the end of the day the thing that makes it truly incredible, and anyone doubting that Isle of Dogs is a love letter to not only our doggy friends but to filmmaking should ponder the homonym hidden in its title: I Love Dogs.
Image credits: Fox Searchlight Pictures, IndieWire