Isle Of Dogs
Director: Wes Anderson
Writers: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura
Runtime: 101 Minutes
I’ve never been the biggest fan of Wes Anderson. This may stem from the fact that I was too young or too immature in life experience to understand the humor and art of ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ which was the first film of his that I ever watched. Although, to this day, I often struggle to not find his work annoying. Not really in a bad way, just annoying like the guy who is really into explaining to you the science of how to drink wine properly or explain why a vinyl sounds better than a CD. Pretentious might be another word but I feel like that word is a little too harsh. Artsy-fartsy might be a more appropriate word, purposely trying to be super cool like a ten year old that rolls his own cigarettes. However, and this is a huge however, Wes Anderson’s work is some of the most wholly original work and often carries with it the highest production values and talent. My gripes with him are just that, my gripes. I would easily put him right next to Quentin Tarantino as a film auteur whose wonderfully creative mind is able to take you through a journey in a wholly contained universe. He’s talented, and as an amateur animator myself, I’ve enjoyed his increasing implementation of more and more animation techniques and stop motion sequences since the film ‘The Royal Tenenbaums.’ Anderson is not one of these directors like a Roland Emmerich, who will just make whatever movie they are hired to make. He’s carved out a niche for himself, meaning you’re not going to see a ‘Life Aquatic 2’ - I think that says a lot about the guy.
‘Isle of Dogs’ continues this tradition of high quality and creativeness - this being Anderson’s second stop-motion animated film since ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox.’ Where ‘Mr. Fox’ was based on a children’s book by Roald Dahl, ‘Isle Of Dogs’ is a completely original story written by Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura. It centers around a pack of five dogs: Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). The story is set in a near future Japan where the dog population has been overgrown and rampant dog flu has spread throughout the canine population. The mayor of Japan, Mayor Kobayashi (Konuchi Namura), decrees that all dogs will be outlawed and sent to an abandoned island where they will live out the rest of their days eating garbage and fighting amongst themselves for shelter and territory. The population of Japan is split between cat and dog lovers as scientists work around the clock attempting to cure the ailments that plagued the dogs in attempt to bring them back to the mainland. Meanwhile back on the Isle of Dogs, a little Japanese boy, Atari (Koyu Rankin), who is the nephew of Mayor Kobayashi, purposely crash lands a futuristic plane onto the island in hopes of finding his long lost dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). Worried that his nephew is lost, a highly publicized search party is sent to Trash Island to find and retrieve him. Believing that the dogs being sent away is part of a larger conspiracy created by the cat lovers and Mayor Kobayahshi supporters, a foreign exchange student from America, Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), takes it upon herself to expose the conspiracy and report it for her school newspaper.
The film is largely told in simplistic Japanese subtitles for things like written text, and the Japanese characters only speak Japanese without subtitles so it is hard at times to interpret what is being communicated. This is used often as a plot device as the miscommunication is used to humorous effect multiple times as the dogs only speak English. However, the language barrier does create a sense of disconnect to the characters and takes away from the emotional connection that you might have relating to the little boy character Atari. This is probably my biggest gripe with the film, as the emotional connection is not really there, even if you have a dog and can relate on a basic level. This is not at all the fault of the medium of animation, as we have all cried over ‘Bambi’ or ‘Dumbo.’ But without knowing what the character of Atari is saying, you really don’t know what he is feeling and that makes it hard to connect with his character and be emotionally invested. At the very least, Japanese subtitles I think would have greatly benefited the film. With that being said, the setting is very epic and I quite enjoyed the humorous take on the Japanese Samurai lore that was being parodied with dogs and cats. I did feel like the take on the Japanese culture, although done in parody, did seem a bit archetypal. The corrupt government, the love of cats, the obsession with sushi and seafood - although not inherently negative, it did seem to harken back to the old days of animation with Mr. Magoo and his asian sidekick. I felt that in some ways it cartoonized the Japanese culture, closer to their portrayal in South Park, I found that somewhat disrespectful of it’s people.
In general the story follows a bit of a hero’s journey, similar to what you would see in a film like ‘Lord of the Rings’ where a group comes together with a singular goal. Where in Tolkien’s novel it was to get the ring to Mordor, here it’s a journey across Trash Island to retrieve Atari’s dog. In ways of surprises, it doesn’t really have many, but the journey is fun, humorous and heartfelt at times. Yet again, this is a film that relies on a ‘White Savior’ of sorts to save the Japanese from their plights; as the aforementioned white American exchange student is eventually responsible for saving everyone and righting all the wrongs. It’s annoying because it’s in so many movies whether it’s whites coming to the aid of American slaves, or Native Americans - and it’s a fantasy because if you look at history: that has rarely ever happened. With four different art snobs writing the script, I’m just kind of shocked that it never came up as being done time and time again.
That isn’t to say that Isle of Dogs is a bad movie. Far, far from it. It is extremely entertaining, excellent production values, and some of the most stellar voice acting I’ve ever seen in an animated film. The stop motion animated film is always a treat, especially from a director such as Wes Anderson. I don’t think this is his best film and I also think it was his most culturally insensitive film. Be that as it may, I still recommend you see this if you are a fan of Wes Anderson’s work or if you are fan of animation in general.