“Isle of Dogs” Delights Visually, Even If It Falls Short of Wes Anderson’s Best Work

“Isle of Dogs” Delights Visually, Even If It Falls Short of Wes Anderson’s Best Work April 22, 2018
Atari and four of his canine companions, in “Isle of Dogs”

Wes Anderson is a polarizing director.  Many are turned off by his artifice and twee mannerisms – but curiously enough, they still go to his films and gripe about these qualities afterwards.  His blatantly obvious visual and storytelling talents are clearly too much to resist.

I’m not one of his detractors.  I consider Anderson to be one of the great American auteurs working today, even if I don’t think that every film by him is a masterpiece (for me, The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou are chores to watch).  But Moonrise Kingdom would easily make my Top 20 list for the 2010s, and maybe The Grand Budapest Hotel, too.

His latest film, Isle of Dogs, falls between these two poles.  Where Moonrise Kingdom possessed deep, affecting relationships among its six lead characters, only the rapport between 12 year old Atari and the stray dog Chief attains this substance.  Despite being more of an adventure story than The Grand Budapest Hotel, it lacks the splendid pacing of that film and lags in places.

But, oh, what a visual feast it is!  In a return to the stop-motion animation style of 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson and his team immerse us in a fictional Japanese city 20 years in the future, complete with stop-motion mosquitoes and multicolored sake bottles.  Using over 250 sets and 2000 puppets, we’re transported to Megasaki and neighboring Trash Island.  With widening eyes, tilted heads, and subtle mouth movement, the emotions and behaviors of surprise, curiosity, and conspiratory whispers are conveyed by both human and canine characters.  Whether in overhead views, following shots, or close-ups, the level of detail is stupendous.

In Megasaki, its cat-loving, dog-hating Mayor Kobayashi has decreed that all dogs must be banished to Trash Island, allegedly to prevent the cross-species spread of dog flu.  His nephew and ward Atari then pilots a tiny plane to the island to rescue his beloved Spots.  When he can’t immediately locate Spots, a quintet of alpha dogs aids him in his search across the vast island.  Meanwhile, the mayor deploys squads of dogcatchers and robot attack dogs to capture Atari, so he can be grounded for the remainder of his childhood.

Anderson’s affection for Japanese painting and cinema emerges repeatedly.  Screens partitioning rooms are painted with Hiroshige-style landscapes overrun with cats and dogs.  To illustrate the threat posed by the mayor, we’re shown an image of Hokusai’s famous wave, dwarfing numerous dogs caught in its trough.  Kunisada’s giant demon cats make an appearance or two.

In interviews, Anderson has spoken of paying homage to Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki with Isle of Dogs.  After two viewings, I don’t see major allusions to Miyazaki’s work, but to Kurosawa, most definitely.  Alexandre Desplat’s magnificent score is punctuated by a fanfare from Seven Samurai and the quiet guitar theme from Drunken Angel.  Characters share names with leads from High and Low, Ikiru, and again, Seven Samurai.

The dialogue – written by Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura – crackles with the wit I’ve come to expect from Anderson’s films.  A pug named Oracle who seems to foresee the future merely has the gift of understanding television.  When the mayor learns of Atari’s disappearance, he disingenuously exclaims, “This is a distant uncle’s worst nightmare!”

Isle of Dogs draws from a Hollywood A-list for its vocal talent, all nicely done and uniformly enjoyable.  The alpha dogs are voiced by Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Ed Norton, and Bob Balaban, while a feisty American exchange student and English translator are voiced by Greta Gerwig and Frances McDormand.

Chief and Atari, in “Isle of Dogs”

Anderson’s usual mannerisms and themes are on display here.  Isle of Dogs is divvied into chapters and has narration by a minor character (F. Murray Abraham’s dog Jupiter) who breaks the fourth wall.  Maps of imaginary places depict Atari and the dogs’ progress across Trash Island.

However, Anderson crafts for himself an unusual challenge, in that the dogs all speak English, while the main humans speak their native Japanese.  The story works around this by having the exchange student and translator offer exposition at strategic intervals.

Like The Grand Budapest Hotel, this film is set against a background of toxic fascism.  Mayor Kobayashi’s fake elections, artificial crises, blame of dissent upon foreign agitators, and jailing of the opposition bear more than a passing resemblance to Vladimir Putin and Russia today.  A canine deportation center with a gate proclaiming “Welcome Dogs,” and a threatened final solution of wasabi gas, echo Nazism’s Arbeit Macht Frei and Zyklon B.

In spite of these allusions to political evil past and present, the heart of Isle of Dogs – as is typical for Anderson – is the existential needs of an orphan boy and the adults shirking their responsibility to a younger generation.  In this case, the adults happen to be both human (Mayor Kobayashi) and canine (Chief).  At one point, Chief cynically states that “we’re all strays in the last analysis.”  Only as Chief learns to stop biting and start nurturing does he find meaning beyond foraging for scraps on Trash Island.

4 out of 5 stars

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