Isle of Dogs review

I love dogs. I LOVE dogs. I love DOGS. And despite his past treatment of our canine friends (RIP Buckley), Wes Anderson has made it clear that he does too. Perhaps it’s in the title and its phonetic admission of Anderson’s intentions. Perhaps it’s in the loving way that every shaggy hair on the muzzles of our stop-motion heroes are lovingly rendered. Perhaps it’s the way that Anderson’s typically dry humor, as performed by a bevy of masters from his deep talent pool, has rarely worked as perfectly as it does coming from the mouth of a dog. Whatever it is, let it be known that if you have ever loved a dog or been loved by a dog, you will love Isle of Dogs.

It’s easy to see why Anderson has taken to the animated medium. Having used his past few films to shed the looseness of his earlier work, the oddball auteur is now leaning heavily into his obsession with symmetrical visuals, and his modus operandi, namely the population of impeccable locales with less than impeccable characters, has never been more pronounced. With stop-motion animation, not only are the perfectionist luxuries indulged in the design of the set-pieces, but also in the performances, which are created frame by frame rather than scene by scene. In a medium that allows for painstaking detail to be tweaked into flawlessness, Anderson has carved out a niche through which his style can truly shine, for better or worse.

Me? I’ll always take Rushmore over The Grand Budapest Hotel, and despite my love for both films, the heightened setting of the latter doesn’t mix so well with its flesh and blood occupants, which has always, in my experience, served to create a distance between viewer and material. This is why — if Anderson truly is beyond a dissolution of his crisp storybook style — animation is a perfect medium for his future work. This is why, despite my general reticence toward animation on the whole, I found Isle of Dogs to be absolutely enchanting.

Penned by Anderson from a story by he, Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola, and Kunichi Nomura, Isle of Dogs tells a tale which begins in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki. The mayor, faced with an outbreak of dog flu, has decided that all dogs are to be exported to Trash Island, where they will be quarantined, while cats take their place in the homes and hearts of Megasaki’s citizens. The mayor’s ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin) is not exempt from the new law, and his dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber) is the first to be sent away to the garbage-covered prison. Atari refuses to be separated from Spots and commandeers a rickety plane to Trash Island so that he can recover his furry friend. Once there he meets a handful of delightful pups: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and Chief (Bryan Cranston). This pack of dogs agrees to help Atari find his former pet, despite the fact that they don’t speak his language. Meanwhile, a precocious American exchange student, Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) is back on the mainland leading a protest against what she and her classmates believe to be a dishonest and excessive law.

At the outset of the film we are given a title card which explains that the dog barks have all been translated to English while the human characters will all speak in their native tongue. Short of a few sparing translations (voiced wonderfully by Frances McDormand), the audience must use context clues to figure out precisely what the Japanese speakers are saying. While this has drawn some ire from critics in the name of “othering” Japanese characters in their own environment, to me it read less as a sidelining of these characters, all of whom are as densely realized as any player in the film, and more of a window into the experience of the dogs.

Of all dogs.

Anyone who has ever known a dog knows that communication between us and them is one of assumption and projection. We project our personalities onto a dog (it’s why those Sarah McLachlan commercials are so effective), while they do their best to act appropriately based on social cues well above their natural intellect. It’s a disconnect for sure, but we always manage to pull it off. Dogs are family, and I like to believe that we understand each other, even if not literally so. Dogs really are man’s best friend, and by placing the audience into a situation where we must use everything except language to understand a human character, Anderson and his team have opened up a window into what it’s presumably like to be one. They have found a way to share with us the experience of giving unconditional love, beyond the bounds of literal communication. It’s magical. Kudos to the animation team for creating characters so full of detail and imagination that making these assumptive leaps about them is not a difficult task. And it really shouldn’t be.

The real hero of Isle of Dogs is its design. Anderson shows an appreciation for Japanese culture that is so obviously borne of love as to not to feel appropriative. In fact, by using a mix of traditional and modern Japanese artistic styles, it becomes clear how much of it has become part of the American melting pot across all mediums, whether expressly or diluted. It’s a blast to look at, and it’s obvious that the filmmakers are having fun incorporating as much imagery as possible. There’s a Taiko drum trio, a sumo wrestling match, and even a mouth-watering sequence in which a chef prepares sushi. Images on monitors take the form of traditional Sumi-e ink drawings, while exposition dumps appear as historical tapestries. And of course there’s no end to Rube Goldbergian mechanics in both the broad, literal sense (the trash disposal machine is a delight) and in the more focused textural sense (I want to watch this a second time just to look for gags hidden in the piles of trash). Essentially, this is the perfect style for Anderson to run wild with.

This film is a bit lighter on the melancholy inherent to Anderson’s brand. It’s a freewheeling movie that’s much more interested in fun and happiness than anything too emotionally heavy. As such, this is a perfectly fine movie for children, if they’re inclined to enjoy rapid-fire dry humor. Even so, there is still thematic resonance as needed. In being a tale about governmental overreach, it becomes a prescient reminder of what can happen when the powers that be decide to make legislature based around broad condemnations of people. One can’t help but think of the failed Muslim travel ban, the transgender military ban, and any of a number of current governmental stupidities designed to divide and categorize people based on arbitrary stuff. “Fear has been mongered” states the political machine once the dogs have been vilified. Spot on.

But these thematic brush strokes paint a little bit more broadly than to be attributed to any specific current events. Really, this is a story about what it means to work with others — about how self-definition is not something that can come from outside forces. Rex advises his comrades to “Be what you are, not what you’re bred to be,” and in doing so speaks to the joys of Anderson’s idiosyncratic style; to the love he has for his characters. Also touched upon is the notion of freedom. At what point does freedom become anarchy? At what point does safety become authoritative?

But the most important thematic concern conjures a famous quote: “The true measure of an individual is how he treats a person who can do him absolutely no good.” Yes, this talking dog movie is very much about classism. Like it or not, dogs are our inferiors, but we unfailingly regard them as equals by giving them as much love as we can muster. Isle of Dogs asks if such courtesy can be extended to our fellow man, and explicitly suggests that it can… and should.

Rounding out the cast we have Ken Watanabe, Fisher Stevens, Harvey Keitel, Yoko Ono, Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton, whose Oracle (a hilariously rendered pug who has “visions”) threatens to run away with the whole movie before even opening her mouth.

I love dogs.

Isle of Dogs opens in Philly theaters today.

Author: Dan Scully

Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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