Wes Anderson is a director that is, for some, one to take in small doses. He’s quirky (this may be an understatement), with a voice that is immediately recognizable when watching any of his films. The fact that seven of his nine movies are in the Criterion collection says a lot about how critics and other industry aficionados view him. I suspect that, in Isle of Dogs, we may see yet another Wes Anderson film join the canon.
[SPOILER ALERT: Scroll through below to read my review of Isle of Dogs. Discussion of major plot points will be limited to the first fifteen minutes of the film.]
This is an absolutely lovely film. Anderson was joined by longtime collaborators Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola (who also voices Igor), along with Kunichi Nomura (who also voices the mayor) in writing the backstory, with Anderson penning the resulting script on his own. Many of Anderson’s regular cast show up, with Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Jeff Goldblum, and Frances McDormand (amongst dozens more) voicing characters. The result of bringing so much talent together with a solid and emotional story is a stunner of a movie.
Isle uses a stop-motion animation technique, interspersed at times with other forms of drawn and shaded animations. Anderson uses a narrator to let the audience know what is happening, and when new acts are beginning, ably voiced by Courtney B. Vance (perhaps best known for his time on Law & Order: Criminal Intent or his recent turn as Johnnie Cochran in American Crime Story). He informs the audience that, while human speech (90% in Japanese) will occasionally – but not always – be translated by “student translators,” all dog barks will be in English. And he gives us 1000 years of backstory, setting up the current situation at the beginning of the film.
Ten centuries before, the cat-loving Kobayashi Clan was defeated by a boy samurai, who helped to preserve the position of dogs within the area. However, a descendant of the defeated Kobayashi has now become mayor [Kunichi Nomura], and he forces the exile of all dogs to the nearby aptly named Trash Island, where all of Megasaki’s refuse is dumped, due to the fact that dogs are suffering from a canine flu that may, perhaps, somehow, infect humans one day. There are a few dog lovers that argue against this, but they are given very little credence and even less time to speak up. Most people, while not exactly happy to lose their dogs, go along with the law.
Enter twelve-year-old Atari Kobayashi [Koyu Rankin], the young orphaned ward of the mayor, whose bodyguard dog Spots [Liev Schreiber] was the first canine to be exiled. He steals a plane, flies to the island, and crash lands after losing a wing. He meets a group of “five alpha dogs” led by Chief [Bryan Cranston], along with Rex [Edward Norton], King [Bob Balaban], Boss [Bill Murray], and Duke [Jeff Goldblum], whose ability to hear rumors and share them with the group is an ongoing gag throughout the movie. When they can’t find Spots right away, the five dogs decide through a vote – Chief voting against – to help the young boy on his quest.
Each of the dogs is wonderfully realized, with full and complex personalities, but Cranston’s Chief steals the day. He only reluctantly helps Atari, and growls at him when the boy first tries to come close, saying, “I bite.” He grows more and more introspective throughout the film, having the most complete character arc, at one point musing, “I don’t know why I bite.” It’s as he’s able to get through this contemplation into self-awareness that he begins to find his place in the world, and his arc coincides nicely with the overall three-act arc of the movie. In reality, though it appears to be Atari’s quest, it’s really Chief’s story.
On their journey they meet many of the canines who inhabit Trash Island, such as the beautiful and oddly well-groomed Nutmeg [Scarlett Johannson], the tough-but-gentle Jupiter [F. Murray Abraham], and his ward/companion Oracle [Tilda Swinton]. The Mayor, for his part, makes a great show of trying to find his ward, but his motivations are always suspect, something that comes to the attention of young exchange student Tracy Walker [Greta Gerwig], who decides that she needs to do whatever she can to help Atari.
The movie is a quest story more than anything else, with themes of belonging, revenge, love, and accountability. Its politics critique the current climate of retrenchment and conservatism that has been sweeping not just America, but the entire world over the last couple of years, with Anderson clearly coming down on the exiling/building walls = bad side of the equation. There has been some early criticism of Anderson’s possible cultural appropriation in this movie, but his themes of bureaucracies out of control and public compliance ring true with my own experience of living in Japan for three years. Perhaps the one place he misses a bit is in the Tracy Walker character – as one of my friends with whom I watched the movie said, it smacked a little of whitewashing, or the White Savior trope. Despite this flaw, I felt the film was excellent, and well-worth going to the theater to see.
Steve’s Rating: (9 / 10)
A wonderful whimsical dog’s tale that combines an awareness of Japanese bureaucracy and its tendency to deal in extremes, with a flawless stop-motion animation technique that succeeds in expressing the entire range of human emotion through the eyes of its main characters.
Director: Wes Anderson
Writers: Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola & Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura (story by); Wes Anderson (screenplay by)
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson
Release Date: April 6, 2018
Runtime: 1 hr. 41 mins.
MPAA Rating: PG-13