Isle of Dogs is the sort of movie that should have a first-class ticket into my heart (and indeed was one of the movies I was most looking forward to this year). It’s not just the new Wes Anderson film, it’s the new Wes Anderson film returning to his lovely animation style from Fantastic Mr. Fox focusing on bunch of dogs set in Japan, with whatever fears of problematic elements (confirmed, I have to admit and will elaborate on, to be worse than I expected) at least promising to deliver an affinity for the styles of Japanese cinema. All of which it delivers on, even if the callbacks to Japanese cinema do not go further than Kurosawa Akira or Ozu Yasujiro.
Far be it from me to claim that Isle of Dogs ended up a disappointment. Indeed, I walked away from it with a smile on my face but one that wanes with every passing season with the thought that it perhaps felt like I – the ideal viewer for this kind of movie – needed to meet it halfway more than I should have had to.
Not a good necessity to have when you are writing a parable about the sweet selflessness of friendship, much as Anderson did based on a story he developed with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura. That story is about a dystopian future in the Japanese city of Megasaki, where a threatening strain canine flu is the catalyst for Mayor Kobayashi Kenji (voiced by Nomura) to enact an order that all dogs be expelled to the nearby accurately-named Trash Island. He makes an example of this by having his son Atari’s (Rankin Koyu) guard-dog Spots (Liev Schreiber) be the first deportee.
Within six months, the inhabiting dogs of the island have now orbited into their own packs and one particular pack made of the previously-pampered Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray; my favorite just because he looks the most adorable in his little league Dragons jersey), and led by grizzled stray Chief (Bryan Cranston) witness a little plane crash-landing with young Atari (distressingly injured from the crash for the rest of the film including an alarming bit protruding out of his head), who subsequently attempts to discipline them using the Seven Samurai theme and recruits them in search of his beloved dog. Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, radical high school exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) investigates into the roots and endgoals of Mayor Kobayashi and his right-hand Major Domo (Takayama Akira)’s plan with the isle of dogs.
Did I say “parable”? Sorry, it gets more complex than that, but the center of the film is the growing bond between Akira and distrusting Chief (having suffered much as a stray in the metropolis) as they seek to reunite Akira with his best friend. Anyway, we may as well acknowledge the problematic elements out of the gate: the imposition of a white savior in Walker (who is a pretty annoying character), the stereotype of Asian mistreatment towards dogs (and caricatured design of Major Domo as some pale yellow fever grotesquerie), the overwhelming presence of non-Asian voices over Asian voice actors (and even though the Asian characters are voiced by Asian actors, much of their dialogue is talked over Frances “inclusion clause” McDormand – a frustrating matter when Anderson gives this movie’s title cards a lateral aesthetic that compliments its design), and especially a development in the third act that – I’m avoiding spoilers – recalls a horrifying atrocity the US commit against the Japanese in a manner that places the Japanese in the perpetrator role and brought me the closest to saying “fuck this”.
Anyway, if you can push past that (And it’s a lot. My privilege as a non-Asian viewer is showing, but Justin Chang and Jen Yamato have a great episode of their podcast The Reel that cuts deeper into these issues), you get a very busily designed movie that mostly pays off in an aesthetic sense. When we’re opened to an diorama look of Megasaki, it is certainly reminiscent of the wide shot introducing the titular Grand Budapest Hotel to us, with moving parts and lights, centralized by the bright red Town Hall and a looming volcano in the distance. And that’s just the start of the sort of an abidance by Japanese cinema and Noh theater that production designers Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod get to play with. Trash Island, made up mostly of blocks of garbage, gets to base its design on stacks or remnants of an old by-gone youthful world with its slides and theme park rides. And despite my complaint about Domo’s design, the rest of the humans are mostly made to look so unpersonable so that the dogs can be as scruffed up as they would be left to their own devices and still be entirely appealing in their bigs eyes (helped by a cast that mostly doesn’t have much to do as characters but still does it hella well; Tilda Swinton’s Oracle is hilarious in its facial expressions and Jeff Goldblum’s delivery of “I love gossip” is so Goldblum-y). More human than human, I’d claim the intention is.
The movement of all these pieces in a manner that mirrors the multiple pieces of narrative we have to work here with and the presentation with it via Anderson’ favorite horizontal camera movements (this time mirroring the sort of cinema he is trying to homage and thereby at the appropriate usage that this trademark has ever had in his filmography) and presents the most controlled aesthetic that Anderson has ever given us (indeed, animation does demand that control is held over by the filmmaker in every aspect). Something, people might argue, feels too controlled in a way that maybe a sincere tale about friendship should be left to organically. It’s maybe the first film where I actually understood people’s issues with Anderson’s characters being a bit distanced from you based on how aware you are of the film’s artifice.
I still think unfiltered feeling is still there in pockets: from the voice performance of Cranston beginning with a gruff guard slowly transforming into determined warmth, a sense of wounding given to Chief as the film moves on, flashback scenarios establishing Atari’s relationship with Spots, all of which cycle into a payoff by the third act. And of course, every single dog is as adorable looking as can be, whether patchy or pudgy, no matter how many vicious injuries they suffer (indeed Isle of Dogs really reminded me of how unexpectedly violent Anderson’s films can be, though the cartoon-esque scuffling in a ball of dust was amusing no less). But the more I look back on the times I’ve had within the Isle of Dogs, the more I’m left with memories of the first Anderson movie I liked but did not love despite all ingredients being my jam.
I don’t know, maybe Wes is more of a cat person. I mean, look what he made happen to poor Buckley.