Review: Isle of Dogs

Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Director: Wes Anderson

Writers: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Kunichi Nomura, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Harvey Keitel, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Akira Ito, Akira Takayama, F. Murray Abraham, Yojiro Noda, Mari Natsuki, Yoko Ono, Frank Wood

Genre: Animation Dystopian Adventure

Rating: PG-13

Ah, Wes Anderson. The head cheese of indie filmmakers. It had been some time since he last made a foray into stop-motion animation with the endlessly charming Fantastic Mr. Fox, but he had said that he wanted to try his hand at that artform again for many years now. Never thought it would be an original screenplay this time around.  Zounds.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Chunk of metal impaled in boy’s head (it doesn’t affect him at all). Small blood spurt. Drawings/depictions of a beheaded samurai. Dogs fight; shown as swirling clouds of smoke, with appendages jutting in and out. Dog with military-issue “exploding teeth” that fire like bullets. Some wounds–e.g., a chewed-off ear. Disturbing sushi-making scene (chopping and slicing live fish). A human character is poisoned; a dead body with bulging eyes is shown. Dogs locked in cages. Mention of a boy’s parents dying in a train wreck. Unpleasant pictures of dogs sick with “canine flu.” Dog skeletons. Mention of dogs being put to sleep. Spoken story about a dog biting a child, with “blood all over the floor.” Some shouting/yelling. Kidney transplant operation is shown, with some blood and gore. Scary character with a monster-like face. Talk of suicide.

Language/Crude Humor: A use of “son of a b****,” a use of “bitch” (in reference to a female dog) and two uses of “d*** it.”

Sexual Content: Mild sex-related dialogue, such as “dogs in heat,” etc. References to dogs mating and having litters of puppies. Male human’s naked backside shown getting out of a bath.

Drug/Alcohol Use: Adult human character drinks in a bar.

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Themes: Dreary post-apocalyptic setting.

Positive Content: Lies are uncovered (the truth will out!), and redemption is possible through sacrifice/generosity. The dogs learn that togetherness, teamwork, and forming a family are better in many ways than being loners. Kindness and loyalty are valued. It’s important to treat animals with respect.

Chief learns trust while still retaining at least a bit of his “wild side.” Most of the other dogs show loyalty in some way, and they’re all quite emotional but don’t judge each other for it. Arguably the best role model is the human girl, Tracy Walker, who uses her voice and the power of the press to stand up to oppression and corruption.

Review

What could possibly be said about indie filmmaker Wes Anderson that hasn’t already been said by those far more informed on this fellow than I? No one makes films anything like this guy. No one would dare to, as it would get snuffed by anyone with half a mind who saw such artistry being peddled by someone without Anderson’s nominal pedigree. His style of camera handling and storytelling abounds with signature maneuvers and features that in many ways breaks well-established rules of cinema. His actors speak and act with a half-conscious candor that is just offbeat enough to be uneasy but not so much that it sacrifices intrigue.

His shot compositions are so obsessively married to symmetry that he could be a Batman villain based on it. His progressions flit haphazardly between being so slow you might lose focus to being so quick you might miss critical bits of plot and character development. He’s one of those auteurs who really cannot be fully explained as to why he works so well for so many cinephiles, even though many have tried (RogerEbert.com editor-in-chief Matt Zoller Seitz has authored two books on Anderson’s career alone).

To put it succinctly, either you get Wes Anderson or you don’t. I’m one of those film aficionados who must rank himself among the latter camp. There are two notable exceptions. His 2012 pubescence-centered summer camp dramedy Moonrise Kingdom managed to win me over with its perplexingly daredevil tale of escapist rebellion and of course, 2009’s stop-motion animated crime caper Fantastic Mr. Fox had me at “hello” for a variety of reasons. Anderson had been saying for some time that he would like to try his hand at stop-motion again, and it’s not hard to see why.

Many observers have said for the longest time that Anderson handles and lovingly constructs the worlds of his films like a dollmaker building a diorama. He has a ubiquitous affinity for flat still shots that linger far longer than average and leave characters to flit across them like stage players. Such stylistic choices and inclinations wed themselves perfectly to animation in general and stop-motion in particular. I’m surprised (and a little disappointed) that he doesn’t do such films more often. At the very least, I can add another of his works to my limited selection of “Wes Anderson Movies I Actually Get and Really Like” with Isle of Dogs.

Like other selections in his oeuvre, we are brought into a tapestry of influences and homages to various sources of inspiration with the focus here being on the artistic accomplishments of Japanese culture. The story is delivered in the trappings of haiku poetry, sumo wrestling, the visual styles of Katsushika Hokusai (with some 2D animation present for that aesthetic), Kabuki theater, and the cinematic flourishes of Akira Kurosawa.

There has been some clamor among certain left-leaning reviewers as to whether Anderson’s demonstration here is an example of respectful homage or (horror of horrors) degrading cultural appropriation. Since I am of the mindset that such contrived grievances like “cultural appropriation” are largely devoid of any really worthwhile misconduct and are made with indiscernible selectivity by that ideology’s adherents (no one’s ever mounted such charges against Alfonso Cuarón, the Mexican award-winning filmmaker who made his career primarily through adaptations of British literature), I’ll leave such thoughts on the windowsill for others to banter over.

My attention is fixated on the fitting gimmickry found here that is never allowed to be reduced to cheap tricks but actually serves the illusionary romp that the film is seeking to explore and deliver. Taking place in near-future Japan in the fictional dystopian metropolis of Megasaki, our story begins in chapter format with a prologue detailing how Megasaki became a primarily cat-centered domain by a centuries-old grudge against a boy samurai who freed dogs from the captivity of an oppressive warlord named Kobayashi. The ruling Kobayashi lineage has long waged war against man’s best friend and is now making capital out of a raging canine flu epidemic by banishing all dogs to a nearby floating trash heap so as deter the spread of the dog virus. In that strain is found a robust political scandal with cover-ups, “accidental” suicides, and Soviet Russia-inspired imagery. As exciting as that might be, our focus is really on how this travesty affects our four-legged friends on the floating refuse pile.

The tale is told primarily from the perspective of the banished pooches of a 12-year-old boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin) who flies to and crash lands on Trash Island in search of his own beloved furry companion–a “short-haired oceanic speckle-eared sport hound” who goes by the name of Spots (Liev Schreiber). Atari is immediately greeted by a small band of dogs who have formed an egalitarian union on the island and all carry authoritative monikers. Dogs Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and Boss (Bill Murray) all commit to aiding the young Atari to help him find his pup despite the objections of Chief (Bryan Cranston), the scruffy fifth member of their pack who is vehemently opposed to domestication in any form. Chief gets the lion’s share of character depth and exploration here. His arc is rife with twists and turns that left me more than satisfied. What was equally satisfying is how Anderson and company manage to handle such a delicate balancing act of what would collapse into disarray under any other director’s watch.

After the prologue, there is an onscreen disclaimer that all human dialogue will be delivered without subtitles in the characters’ native languages. This means that with the exception of a translator (Frances McDormand) and an American foreign exchange student named Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), all dialogue in the film from human characters is in Japanese. The barks of the dogs, we are told, have been handily translated into standard American English. This is a very charming if somewhat ridiculous handling, but Anderson is nothing if not ridiculous and charming in his approaches.

What plays out could rightly be considered one of this filmmaker’s most ambitious outings to date, as he seems to break so many of even his own tropes with relentless resolve. The story of a precocious young boy being escorted across dangerous landscapes dodging threats of many sorts could be right at home in a film like Ice Age. Despite the PG-13 rating, this is hardly less family-friendly than anything found in Fantastic Mr. Fox, though the fact that the film’s richest scenes are found in quiet moments of simple dry exchanges of words may be difficult for the more restless young viewers in the crowd. What was also impressive for Anderson as an artisan is the daring choice to place the majority of the story in the canine equivalent of a post-apocalyptic hellscape, with dogs forming factions and clans as they fight to survive and/or maintain their sanity (LA Times reviewer Justin Chang coined the term “Mad Max: Furry Road” to aptly describe the scenery and plot).

The corresponding human drama also manages to properly drive and contextualize the adventure tale with unexpected intrusions from the powers that be. Such intrusions were equally threatening and outrageous in their particulars. While conflict with rival dog tribes is to be expected, remote controlled battle drones and transforming robot attack hounds were not. Each “chapter” ends with a divergence to the political conflict in Megasaki, with Tracy pursuing a hairbrained tinfoil hat conspiracy that happens to hit the nail on the head a little too hard and directly to be coincidental. The presence of a student-directed protest campaign against a deceitful government carrying out mass deportation felt to me to be timely for all the wrong reasons, but it did nothing to detract from the lovingly handcrafted diorama of a film in my vision.

After building such a widely renowned body of work featuring a variety of meticulously engineered beauty, what’s next but to try your hand at meticulously engineered ugliness–or at least take a stab at making beauty of a massive floating glorified landfill?  Anderson really took the bull by the horns here, ensuring that every single visual element on camera down to the special effects like smoke, fire, and electrical sparks are rendered with a concrete textile material. It also goes without saying that such an inherently disheveled environment doesn’t really lend itself to the symmetrical arrangements that Anderson so famously favors, but he still somehow manages it without injuring the integrity of the production design, by Jove.

The writing here both in dialogue and in plot still carries that unique vibe of being deliberate and concrete while also being oddly peripheral in its nature.Coupled with award-winning French composer Alexandre Desplat’s score that is equal parts unprecedented and eerily recognizable, this is a thoroughly and wonderfully surreal trek no matter what perspective you bring to it. This may leave people wondering what supposed to be going on or even what they are supposed to feel in response to what’s going on. Perhaps that was intentional. This is a film that doesn’t demand acceptance or appreciation. You can take it or leave it for what it is, dear reader.

Despite his failure to engage this viewer in most of his releases, Wes Anderson has forever struck me as one of those auteurs who loves his own work and characters so much that he really couldn’t care less if anyone else did. Such careful and loving handmade craftsmanship could hardly signify anything else. Every effort was made to make every character and location to feel as rustic and mangey as would be fitting.

The fur and faces on the dogs feel and look weathered in a genuine way. The human characters look just unrealistic enough to be considered strange without being unsettling. The environments move, breathe, and function with the same level of sophistication as the most elaborate dollhouse while providing all the sense of danger, dreariness, and melancholy as would suit a narrative of this sort. It is often those storytellers who put their characters under the direst of situations and cruelest of hardships who display the greatest amount of care and affection for the characters’ journey, growth, and eventual victory. Whatever your takeaway, you won’t be wasting time at the theater with a film like Isle of Dogs.

I JUST figured out the joke to that title…

Positives

+ Beautiful textile approach + Robust ensemble cast + Multilayered plot with dips, dimensions, and intrigue + Topical without being preachy

Negatives

- Dry humor and pace might not sit well with many viewers

The Bottom Line

*bark bark, buh-BARK bark bark. Bark bark. Bark bark bark. Bow wow. Ruff.* (It’s too little to call this brilliantly weird. This is Wes Anderson at his finest. He approaches stop-motion animation with the intricate eye for detail that Hayao Miyazaki uses for hand-drawn animation. Highly recommended.)

 

8.9

Tyrone Barnes

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