Written and directed by Wes Anderson
Like most auteur directors, Wes Anderson has a passionate fanbase, and one which has very good reason to be passionate about his films. They’re often astounding, unique works of art. For me, Anderson’s work is much more hit or miss. I find his work at his most wonderful when instilled with a sense of humanity and emotional sympathy for its characters (see Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums). The singular visual style, the manner in which Anderson characters talk are all very specific to his films, and these are often the off-putting elements to films of his I end up well below the majority on (see The Grand Budapest Hotel). With Isle of Dogs, Anderson returns to the animation style known as stop-motion, which he utilized for his acclaimed film Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the result leaves me a little undecided.
Anderson sets the scene with a prologue, wherein it is explained that in the Japanese city of Megasaki, authoritarian Mayor Kobayashi has created an outcast colony on Trash Island for all dogs, blaming the Canine Flu as the need for such a decree. Kobayashi’s plans begin to unravel, however, when his nephew Atari flies to the island in search of his dog Spots. In doing so, he encounters a pack of alpha dogs who help him search for Spots. Atari’s brash decision to go to the island of infected dogs out of love for his dog inspires a group of pro-dog activists, among them Tracy, an American foreign exchange student with a great distaste for Kobayashi and his policies as well as a tremendous crush on Atari himself. Atari and the alpha dogs rush to find Spots before Kobayashi can enact the next layer of his sinister plan.
Anderson’s strengths are strengths for a reason, and it is rare that they aren’t on full display in any one of his movies. Isle of Dogs is no different, as the film is a visual delight from start to finish. The unique method of stop motion animation seems to align perfectly with the visual vocabulary of Anderson, allowing him to instill both interesting composition and beautiful production design into his narrative. A strong Andersonian trait and one which I look forward to in each of his films. In crafting this film the way he does, Anderson also affords himself the chance to display his knack for humor, both in visual ways and within the screenplay itself. The stop motion here again lends itself to the style of verbal humor Anderson likes to employ, allowing it to come through animals and animated humans as opposed living breathing people who would never talk like that. It makes his quirk that much more believable and enjoyable.
The stop motion also allows Anderson to cast an impressive vocal ensemble, whose performances only stand to enhance the experience of the film. Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, and particularly Bryan Cranston all stand out in the film. Of course, one of the major backlashes which already exists for the film is the cultural appropriation. Is Anderson simply making this story take place in Japan because he wants to use the culture to make his film cooler, more unique? Is he using the Japanese setting in some degrading way as to offend? Those answer are above my pay grade if you ask me, and it’s not exactly my place to posit the answers as a white man from middle America. What do I know? I will say that I saw the use of Japanese culture in Isle of Dogs to be used in a reverential manner, celebrating the various cultural differences from the likely target audience (America) and the place in which the film takes place (Japan), even if the way Anderson decides to use language is a little frustrating and I’m not quite sure why he did it the way he did (using interpreters and leaving some Japanese dialogue untranslated).
I could spend a great deal talking about this point, but there are writers much better and much more qualified than I to speak to that, so I will leave it to them. What I did find about the narrative, since it feels like I haven’t had the chance yet to really discuss the story yet at all, is that it is a bit of a mixed bag. The quest aspect of the film, along with the humor, make it an enjoyable ride. The characterization of the principle dogs is fantastic work and prime example of Anderson at his very best. Upon reflection, the story might reveal a deeper emotional basis that what I felt in my theater seat too. In a way, it seems as though the dogs can be representative of any number of marginalized people, such as Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps during World War II, or Jews sent to concentration camps during the same time frame. I also felt like the film felt a bit like a western, though it doesn’t quite align with the standard narratives found within that genre, the dogs could also be representative of Native Americans sent to live on reservations, which were often the worst bits of land left over from their tribal territories pillaged by the American government. It’s fascinating the consider the politics of the film for these reasons.
Isle of Dogs is certainly a great technical achievement, enhanced by its Taiko drum score and flawless use of stop motion. It even has narrative ambition. It’s funny, it’s charming at times, it’s a good movie. I’m just not quite sure it’s a great one when all is said and done. I didn’t get the same enjoyment from it as I did, say, Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums. I was able to appreciate the character’s stories from a distance, without ever feeling completely invested in them throughout, as I was with those other two films. Isle of Dogs just didn’t quite “click” for me, though it is a beautiful film to behold. Perhaps subsequent viewings would iron out my opinion of the film, one way or the other.