The films of Wes Anderson have been sort of hit and miss for me. I absolutely loved The Grand Budapest Hotel, and thought it should have won Best Picture. I got Rushmore, but apart from the lead performances, it really didn’t resonate. I couldn’t stand The Royal Tenenbaums. I enjoy his artistic style and snappy dialogue, but sometimes it comes at the cost of characterization, and other times he seems like he’s just being odd for the sake of being odd.
When I first saw the trailer for his latest film, Isle of Dogs, all I could do was plead to whatever God might exist, “Please be good, please be good, please be good,” because it seemed to have all the right elements. Sure it had his usual stable of actors (Ed Norton, Bill Murray, F. Murray Abraham, Bob Balaban, etc.), and yeah, the indie folk songs over the trailer were iffy at best. But there was color, and good lines, and what seemed like effective character beats even within a two-minute preview. Plus, I’m just a sucker for stop-motion animation.
I hoped for the best. And I got it.
Isle of Dogs is a master work on so many levels that I’m bound to forget some of them here as I recount the experience. Boiled down to its core, the story is a simple tale of a boy trying to find his lost pet, and gaining a new companion along the way. But the beauty of the film is so much more beyond such a summation that it doesn’t do it justice.
In near-future Japan (20 years from now), a local city and prefecture mayor is the latest in a cycle of what is hinted to be an ancient war between cats and dogs. Mayor Kobayashi declares a public health emergency due to an outbreak of dog flu (which we later learn he himself created), and has every dog in the city transported to a garbage bund, effectively exiling every domestic pet to a feral existence. His nephew Atari hijacks a small plane and flies to Garbage Island to search for his dog/security guard, Spots (Liev Schreiber). He encounters a small pack of domestic dogs (Murray, Balaban, Norton, and Jeff Goldblum) led somewhat by the stray Chief (Bryan Cranston). I say somewhat because the group takes the pack mentality to almost communist levels as they satirically vote on every course of action they take. The group, sympathetic to Atari’s plight, lead him across the island in hopes of finding Spots, with Atari forming a rapport with Chief.
Meanwhile, on the mainland, a small group of scientists and high school students work to discredit Mayor Kobayashi. On the scientific front, a cure for the dog flu is quickly developed by a team of lab workers before the lead scientist is murdered by Kobayashi’s goons. He is mourned by his assistant (literally Yoko Ono, in both actress and character name), who nearly gives up hope. The students are led by a transfer named Tracy (my celebrity crush Greta Gerwig), who delves in conspiracy theories, but this time she happens to be right. The two groups work on parallel priorities to expose Kobayashi’s corruption and get their dogs back before he has them all euthanized.
It’s a simple enough story, with defined subplots. But what makes it shine is the presentation. Right off the bat, the animation is spectacular. The color palette is classic Wes Anderson, with bright tones and very strategic uses of shadow and light. The detail in the character design is at the highest level, particularly when it comes to the wavy fur of the dogs and the freckled face of Tracy. There’s also a brilliant contrast at work, with the bulk of the action being stop-motion, but complemented by 2D animation when represented as video on the local news. The character design still shines through just as much in a flat, green-tinted surveillance video as it does in the full 3D models, and it’s an amazing amount of positioning, editing, and visual effects needed to pull the trick off.
On top of that, there are the set designs on the titular island. When Spots becomes the first dog deposited there in his travel carrier, he’s plopped down in the middle of a cube garden full of compacted garbage. It looks like something that WALL-E would have constructed in his spare time. Later on, the dogs rescue Atari from government agents while Chief fights a robotic dog. The background set is a mountain of black garbage with lines of orange waste frittered along the sides, looking like a literal oozing volcano of trash. It’s amazing to behold, and that’s just scratching the surface. Wait until you get to the disused golf course and industrial buildings.
That’s the visual angle, but the language presentation is a truly inspired artistic choice. The audience is warned up front that dialogue will be in native tongues, with interpreters where needed/thematically appropriate, adding the caveat that the dogs’ “barks” will be rendered in English. That was actually one of the lingering questions I had from watching the trailer. If the film is set in Japan, why do the dogs speak English? They give you that answer within the first couple of minutes.
But what makes it amazing is that you don’t need to understand the language to get the point of the dialogue. I know a little bit of Japanese. Not enough to get by conversationally, but I’ve dabbled in Rosetta Stone and I’ve picked up enough through osmosis thanks to years of watching anime. So some of the Japanese dialogue I actually understood (I’d wager about 10% at best). But I didn’t need to, because in most of the scenes, the facial expressions and actions on screen make it completely clear and unambiguous what the situation is. On those rare occasions where there’s a bit more nuance to the speech, it’s presented as a news report or a committee meeting where there are interpreter characters on hand to translate (voiced by Frances McDormand and Anderson regular Frank Wood). It’s utterly brilliant because it forces you to immerse yourself in the story while making it instantly relatable, allowing you to invest that much further into the characters. Also, it almost goes without saying, but some of the lines are absolutely hilarious.
There are also some really well played thematic elements. There’s a clear parallel between Kobayashi’s Megasaki City and our own political climate, where dissent is dismissed at best and criminalized at worst (American Tracy is apprehended and threatened with immediate deportation for criticizing the dear leader). There’s also a lot to be said about authoritarianism versus democracy, with Kobayashi leading a propaganda campaign to ensure his landslide reelection all in service of elevating cats above dogs (if there’s one notable flaw in the film’s plot it’s that the motivation and deference to felines is never really explained or explored).
But most importantly, the film is about the love and basic goodness in all things. Sometimes it’s right on the surface, particularly in the film’s weakest subplots regarding Spots and Chief pursuing some bitches (including Tracy’s former show dog Nutmeg, voiced by Scarlett Johansson). But it really shines through in the almost Buddhist nature with which the dogs are treated by everyone but Kobayashi, as inherently good, even when they do bad things like bite (the main reason for Chief’s stray status). No matter who they are, what they do, or where they’re from, all dogs are good. Who’s a good boy? You’re a good boy! Yes you are! The film posits the question, “Whatever happened to ‘Man’s Best Friend?'” and it effectively reminds us that they’re anywhere you care to look.
I’ve seen some criticism of this film on the grounds of “cultural appropriation,” to which I say, fuck right off with that bullshit. I understand the need to be culturally sensitive, but part of what makes this film so great is the care with which Anderson and his team created this world and this story, remaining true to Japanese culture and custom. There aren’t any white guys playing Japanese characters (which would be yet another reason for people to bitch), unless you REALLY want to quibble that the dogs are Japanese and therefore should have been Asian actors (but again, that’s covered in the opening language disclaimer, so fuck you), so really, if you’ve got a problem here, you’re clutching at straws.
There have been some other snide remarks about Tracy’s character being a “white savior,” to which I again say fuck off. It doesn’t matter that Tracy’s white. She’s there to be an English-speaking character to make sure that the plot advances. The only thing that separates her from the interpreter characters is that she’s an active member of the story. But even then, she’s only a part of the ultimate solution. It’s Atari and the dogs that save the day, not Tracy. She helps, certainly, but she changes no minds. In fact for half the film she’s little more than a loose verbalization of conspiracy theories. If she’s a savior character than I’m Brad fucking Pitt. I’m all for reasoned debate, but this just screams that ignorant people want to be contrarians and find something to complain about in a wonderful piece of art.
Literally I found only two problems. One is the aforementioned lack of info on why the Kobayashi Clan serves cats. The other is a bit of technological confusion, as Atari and Spots have headsets so Atari can call his dog when he’s in another room. A flashback shows that Spots can understand Atari, but some later scenes imply that the verbal understanding is two-way, but it’s never quite sorted out. Beyond that, this is a near-perfect film, and I’m beyond glad that my hopes turned out for the best. Now I need to find a puppy to cuddle.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite Wes Anderson film? Who wants a treat? You wants a treat! Who’s got a fuzzy tum-tum? You’ve got a fuzzy tum-tum!