Set in a dystopian Japan’s Megasaki, Wes Anderson’s newest film Isle Of Dogs is a stop-motion animation story of a 12-year-old boy’s search for his lost dog, but it’s a hell of a lot more than that.
In Isle Of Dogs, all dogs are exiled by a dog-hating Mayor to an offshore island trash dump after contracting a mysterious dog illness that could make people sick if it passes the dog-human barrier. Under the false pretenses of “canine saturation,” “dog flu,” and “snout fever,” (and “Bad Dogs”), dogs are shipped off to fend for themselves forever.
The story unfolds with Anderson’s usual twists, turns, and unrelenting dry humor in the face of adversity.
Anderson is known for his visual masterpieces, like uh, everything he’s ever touched (The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Darjeeling Limited, The Grand Budapest Hotel).
Isle Of Dogs is nothing different—this time with stop motion, heaps of trash, and adorable dogs. It’s a departure from Anderson’s usual kitschy, visual confectionery—the landscape of symmetrical garbage canyons is grim and bleak but still full of exquisite details and beauty that we know and love from his films.
The dialog and narrative is full of quirk, quick-wit, and an alarming sense of self-awareness (dogs looking straight at the viewer, commenting that they wish someone spoke Japanese right after a long Japanese monologue).
Anderson’s usual cast of familiar voices (Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Liev Schreiber, Bryan Cranston and Scarlett Johansson, etc.) portray the wily set of dogs with an ease to make the audience feel like we’re old friends… plus, they all speak English.
We follow a cast of five dogs in their antics around Trash Island, as they help the Mayor’s nephew Atari find his dog (and personal body guard) Spots. The canine inhabitants have an off-key beauty: sick, thin, haggard, fur matted; they convey sadness but still have hope that things could, maybe, someday, get better.
There are references to Japanese movies, art and music, including a stunning sushi chef scene where we watch each step in the butchering of a fish, a crab, an octopus, and into an arrangement into a beautiful sushi bento box.
The majority of the human characters are Japanese and speak Japanese, which is conveyed through subtitles an in-movie English translator or, sometimes, not translated at all. There’s a lot of argument about cultural appropriation and how the film uses stereotypes, but I don’t feel like it’s my place to comment about that.
What was striking to me is that this film uses allegory to remind the audience how easy it is for humans to hate something or someone, especially when they are seen as the “other”. In the film, the Mayor and government decides that ALL dogs are bad, regardless of whether or not they test positive for dog fever. This commentary about the evil in which mankind is capable—in this case, against man’s best friend, is painful and sad.
Is Isle Of Dogs a commentary on US Japanese Internment camps in WWII? Or a commentary about Trump’s America? I thought the repeated use of calling dogs “Bad Dogs”, reminded me of Trump’s “Bad Amigos” and wanting to build a giant wall to “keep out immigrants”. In the end, without spoiling the movie too much for you, the revolting youth of the film ends up saving the day, and the dogs.
Regardless of the inherent sadness of exiling all dogs, there are moments of beauty and tenderness, like the first time badass stray dog Chief (voiced by Brian Cranston), realizes he’s grown to love the companionship of 12-year-old Atari and tears well up in his crystal doggy eyes.
You’ll laugh, maybe get a little teary-eyed, and definitely leave the theater with a desire to hug a dog.
If you are a fan of Wes Anderson films, I highly recommend seeing Isle Of Dogs. Even if you’re not, it’s good and you should see it.