Updated: Jul 10, 2018
by Derek May
Yin: Isle of Dogs
As someone who has dabbled in the world of stop-motion animation myself, I have a profound respect for anyone who has the time and patience to work with this method - even when they have hundreds of people helping to my two. In Isle of Dogs, director-auteur Wes Anderson returns to the medium and not only succeeds in recapturing the magic of his previous animated effort Fantastic Mr. Fox, he may have even exceeded it.
Anderson is one of those directors you seem to love or hate. His style is so distinctive that you either totally buy into the experience or it tends to grate you incessantly with its quirky eccentricity. I am, for the most part, a fan. I haven’t loved all his films, but I’ve appreciated them far more often than not. I’m constantly impressed with his ability to make such a rigidly standardized framework of symmetrical shot blocking somehow visually interesting, even fresh. I think what also keeps the monotony at bay is the giddy, un-cynical tone with which he infuses all of his works. Even when they turn down a dark story alley, he seems to always have a wink and a smile ready to lighten the mood, telling the audience this is just fun, so sit back, relax, and enjoy.
This tone is vital to Dogs, as the basic premise - dogs are diseased, and an evil official decrees they must be rounded up and unceremoniously dumped on a trash island to fend for themselves - is not exactly rainbows and sunshine. We get blood, fights, deaths, and some rather adult allegories, but it’s all balanced with a pleasant neutrality - both in tone and in the characteristic delivery by the actors - that dilutes it just enough to make it all, dare I say… sweet.
The emotional stakes feel real. We root for the burgeoning relationships and feel the dire consequences of the uphill battle being waged. Prepare for a few shocks and tears along the way, as Anderson ever-so-slowly ratchets up the tension, even amongst several cleverly placed red herrings, to keep you invested emotionally until the final act.
Not everything here is antiseptically kid-friendly, so be warned. This feels more like the tales from the 80’s where kids had to deal with adult themes and danger, but always came out on top, and we had a lot of fun watching them do it. It’s a film made for adults and mature kids, with plenty to keep each invested. But at its essence, this is still the typical boy and his dog story, told amidst a hyperbolic metaphor of politics and revenge. We saw plenty of the same in Mr. Fox, but here, unconstrained by the trappings of source material, Anderson is free to expand his story into a multitude of themes. Whether it’s finding one’s place in the world, learning who you are, never judging a book by its cover, or even what true leadership really entails, Anderson seems to have no trouble weaving each thread while giving due to a dozen significant, well-defined characters.
With so many characters, Anderson is able to bring back his usual stable of thespians, including old stalwarts like Bill Murray, Edward Norton, and Jeff Goldblum as well as fresh blood in Bryan Cranston, Greta Gerwig, and the impressive host of Japanese talent likely unfamiliar to western audiences. Cranston in particular as the protagonist Chief brings gravitas in both voice and presence. He balances the unlovable outsider with defiant grit and a sympathetic longing, keeping that edge honed just enough that you’re never quite sure if that surly exterior will be completely penetrated by the aggressive, determined little boy he’s been roped into helping. The arc here for Chief is believable and significant, anchoring the narrative amongst wave after wave of intriguing side-stories and characters.
The animation itself is flawless and beautiful, with barely a whiff of CG outside possibly the mouths. The figures are supremely detailed in every regard, and the simple touches like constantly moving fur or hair serve to give it all a vibrancy and vitality. One particularly nice touch is using traditional 2-D animation when showing the characters on television screens, a simple trick that really adds a depth of artistic brilliance to the show. The sets are no less impressive, epic in scope (as any tale of Japan should be) and minute in detail.
It occurred to me that for the most part, Anderson’s style really makes this sort of animation about as easy as it can ever get. Even in live action, he often likes to shoot his characters still, staring almost blankly into the camera or at each other, barely moving a muscle. A dream to animate. But even still, he never holds anything so long as to pull the audience out of the reality, offering a ruffle of fur, a blink, or a sneeze that serves to remind us that these are 'living' beings.
Fans of Japanese films and culture will catch a plethora of respectful nods, and fans of stop-motion will be undoubtedly impressed with the level of care taken to keep humans and animals alike alive and real. If you’ve stuck with Anderson this long, you’ll definitely want to catch this one, a highlight of his quirky sensibilities. If not, you can still appreciate a monumental task well-executed, with a well-crafted story that takes you on a roller-coaster ride of emotions through its whimsical facade.
Yang: The Titan
If you haven’t seen Sam Worthington in a while, there’s a good reason. He’s been keeping plenty busy, but has chosen mostly straight-to-video fare of late. With no less than four Avatar sequels coming up, he’s certainly got enough money and job security to choose whatever project he likes. And maybe he chose The Titan for a very specific reason.
Worthington plays Lt. Rick Janssen, a young soldier who, while preparing to colonize a new world, allows himself to be changed into an “alien” lifeform. That is also slightly blue. What better way to stretch your muscles before heading back to Pandora, am I right?
While arguably derivative, The Titan’s premise is still somewhat intriguing. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything with some context here, but the idea that instead of terraforming a planet to suit human needs we can simply genetically adapt humans to suit the new planet is clever and ripe for exploration. Unfortunately, that’s about as clever as the film gets.
This is German director Lennart Ruff’s first feature after a string of shorts, and he certainly knows how to use a camera and deliver some beautiful shots. But after a strong start, the story unfortunately unravels into a dud. We follow Rick, his wife Abi, and their young son as Rick prepares to embark on the evolutionary journey to create superhumans able to colonize Saturn’s moon of Titan. As you can probably guess from here, things will not go according to plan. The tension revolves around how this radical and experimental process will ultimately affect its participants, yet a lot of that tension is undercut by the fact that each volunteer, as well as their families, are given a seemingly thorough dossier and explanation on exactly what the process will be. Abi is a doctor, and while she smartly asks plenty of questions, it really doesn’t seem like there’s anywhere near the mystery or conspiracy that later scenes imply. Add to that, the other throughline about how this process will not just change them physically, but psychologically and emotionally, isn’t nearly as fully addressed as it can or should be. That’s really where the film begins to unstitch.
Instead of questioning who these people are becoming, we really just focus on what they are becoming, which is far less interesting, especially, when the military seems to deal with that issue quickly and handily.
The ending is also one of the most anti-climactic and underwhelming conclusions I’ve seen in a while. I’ll try to avoid outright spoiling it, but essentially, the entire mission they wanted to accomplish, which seemed to go horribly wrong, be revealed as morally and ethically questionable, and ultimately fought to be scrapped and undone, is wholly accomplished. So what exactly was the point then? Is it a happy ending? Also, it’s never really addressed how altering the genetic makeup of an entire species into something almost completely alien (and likely potentially psychotic), will in any way “save” the human race. Will the rest of humanity accept this? Will Rick’s success or failure ultimately save him or his family? Not only do we not really get these answers, I’m not sure we even get the questions.
The shame of it all is that the film is in many other ways extremely well put together. As I said, director Ruff has a nice, crisp visual style, and for the most part is edited with a pace that allows for plenty of character and relationship scenes while leading us through the experimental process. And to their credit, the cast fully embraces the material. I’ve always found Worthington likeable but wooden, and I don’t see anything here to really argue that. But he’s serviceable enough to hold it together. Orange is the New Black’s Taylor Schilling could arguably be considered the true protagonist here, not only because her excellent and emotional performance steals every scene, but even the story ultimately drifts to favor her point of view far over Rick’s (another errant story element). Tom Wilkinson has played the role of seemingly kind old sage who’s revealed to be cruel and immoral so many times he’s got it down to a science, and thus he naturally excels here. The rest of the players are equally well-cast, including Game of Thrones and Fast and Furious alum Nathalie Emmanuel, who I suspect really had a much larger and more significant role as shot than what we were left with. Her relationship with Rick developed quite elegantly and naturally, setting up a perfect creepy union and possible love triangle that would have really been interesting, but alas was quickly and unceremoniously dumped for no logical reason.
The Titan is the little film that could’ve, a clever twist on an old concept that laid a perfect groundwork for questions about the nature of humanity and the lengths we’ll go in order to save or destroy it. Instead, we get some wonderful setup that simply isn’t paid off. It’s too bad—but then again, Worthington has four more shots coming up to get it right, so fingers crossed.