Isle Of Dogs
Ah, Wes Anderson and his fearful symmetry. Back after an unprecedented four years absence from the directors chair, it’s fair to say that Anderson’s latest had non-literal tongues (and tails!) wagging, with his return to the stop-motion animation process that delivered such rich results with his unexpectedly incredible adaptation of Fantastic Mr Fox. Since diving into the world of Roald Dahl, Anderson made perhaps his greatest film with The Grand Budapest Hotel, and the time he has taken between projects this time would, understandably enough, have many wondering just what he was cooking up over so lengthy a time. Isle Of Dogs was the answer, but then, was it actually worth the wait? I caught an advanced screening of Isle Of Dogs at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival.
Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) are an unfortunate pack of canines, banding together for mutual survival after being exiled to “Trash Island” by a Japanese society grown overly fearful of dog flu, egged on by the villainous Mayor Kobayoshi (Kunichi Nomura). When a young boy (Koyu Rankin) crashes his plane on the island while searching for his own dog, the pack, even reluctant loner Chief, must help the “Little Pilot”, while others organize against the dog-hating government.
Isle Of Dogs (and yes Wes, I get the title) is certainly a fantastical tale. A villainous government, pushing a radical pro-cat agenda that stretches back millennia, seeks to eradicate the dog population, and our scruffy protagonists have to survive by virtue of a semi-mystical epic journey through a landscape that, in naming conventions and principals, resembles something out of Game Of Thrones. The opening prologue, to the resounding crash of traditional Japanese drums, tells a stylized story of war between dog and cat and human that is like something out of a backdrop to The Last Samurai. This is not strange when it comes to the works of Wes Anderson, who frequently descends into the realm of the strange and the absurd.
And yet, Isle Of Dogs has that which all the other Anderson films have as well, and in spades: characters that, while sometimes simple, are intriguing, sympathetic and just plain endearing. No matter what the physical and narrative landscape, once Anderson has those, everything else falls into place, alongside a repeat of his common central themes: dysfunctional families, sibling rivalry, isolation and a pushback against fascistic oppression.
Anderson splits his story down the middle, between the titular island and the world of man, and while both are excellent, it’s fair to say that the dog side of things is a little bit better. It’s a savage, literal dog-eat-dog landscape, more Mad Max than Fantastic Mr Fox, and yet Anderson, with a skill so finely crafted it looks practically easy, manages to rapidly insert layers of warm humor and fuzzy feels galore, right from an opening sequence where the main pack of “alpha dogs” politely discuss with another group whether a bag of trash is worth fighting over at all (both sides agree to peacefully take a look inside the rubbish strewn bag first; it is). Cranston’s Chief, a stray who wants to stay a stray, gets the lions share of attention and, if we’re being fair, the only character arc in the story worth really talking about, but the group dynamic at large is fantastic, between Rex’s faltering attempts at leadership (they vote on everything, and Chief is the only one who ever votes “nay”) and Duke’s rumour-mongering, the only way the dogs ever discuss any news of anything going on outside of their immediate circle. Anderson can’t help himself with the sudden introductions of plot pivotal characters late on, a recurring trait, but you’re going to be happy to be swept along for the ride.
You’re already hooked in enough with just this central premise, but then along comes the Little Pilot Atari. The dogs from good homes immediately take to the human authority figure, but Chief initially is having none of it. From there, we’re off on a journey of self-discovery and danger, that runs between the mysterious and attractive Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) to future speaking oracles (Tilda Swinton, whose character spins being able to understand television as omniscience) to a brutal showdown with robotic dogs in a recycling facility. There’s twists and turns and heaps of Anderson’s trademark inventiveness, and not just on the visual side. As Atari looks for his own guard dog Spots and starts taking Chief out of his shell, Isle Of Dogs examines the critical difference between friendship and obedience, as characterised by man’s interaction with canine.
Isle Of Dogs, as the films title might indicate when you say it out loud, is very much a love letter to canines and to the human/pet relationship, though the human side of the story doesn’t quite match up to the animal. While Atari tries to form a bond with Chief, there’s an initially bizarre looking political sideplot involving the villainous cat-loving Mayor trying to off his opponent from the “Science Party” (“What ever happened to man’s best friend?” he tearfully opines in the opening) while an exchange student from America, operating as part of the most pro-active student newspaper in history, tries to get to the bottom of the anti-dog conspiracy. If the stuff on Trash Island has an obvious humanity to it that endears, combined with the achingly cute animals just trying to find a way to survive and, maybe a way home, the human side, in “Megasaki” struggles at times through the idiosyncratic weirdness on display: the assassination attempts, the ghoulish right hand men, Yoko Ono in one scene cameos where she gets slapped silly in the hunt for information. It all does seem a tad disjointed at times, and only comes together when the twisted strands of the story intertwine for the last act, the whole thing coming together at a break-neck pace.
The human side of things also has a serious conflict between one of the film’s most positive elements, and one of its most criticism worthy. On the good end of the scale, Isle Of Dogs serves as a potent and timely metaphor for humanity’s general treatment of those in need, specifically refugees, with the idea of quarantine and concentration decried overwhelmingly as an evil. It’s also a clear rallying cry for the forces of logic, reason and science over those who would prefer to inflame populist emotion for their own sinister ends, and it isn’t hard to see just what, or who, Anderson is taking aim at when he does so. And there’s a healthy does of condoning youthful idealism as well, portrayed as perhaps the only way that the evil forces of oppression and racism will be combated. If The Grand Budapest Hotel was a subtle warning against the rise of fascism wiping out the very structure of civilised society, then Isle Of Dogs may well be called a part of the Resistance movement to the regime in progress.
But then there is the sheer, obvious and unmistakably cultural appropriation, or cultural insensitivity. I don’t doubt that Anderson is a bit in love with Japan, which he attempts to portray in a admiring sense, but facts are facts: sumo, sushi, haikus and mushroom clouds abound, while there is an over-reliance on traditional stereotypes of Japanese culture, like obsessions with honor and tradition, that are pretty stifling. That’s before you get into the casting of Tilda Swinton and Scarlett Johansson, only recently part of white-washing scandals themselves, or the fact that, at one point, a dog gets literally white-washed in order to turn into a more productive character. And there is also that American exchange student, Tracey voiced by Greta Gerwig, who essentially becomes the voice of the Japanese youth, despite not speaking Japanese, a white savior here to save a foreign culture from itself. Why couldn’t she have been Japanese herself? Indeed, the Japanese characters are only understood through various different kinds of translation, most notably by a diplomatic translator voiced by Frances McDonald, with the Japanese dogs speaking English. While that effect may be an intentional inverting of the normal human/dog paradigm, it still contributes to a downplaying of Japanese agency in the film, in favor of western language and characters. While the general brilliance of the film will certainly let you overlook these problems in the moment, it is the kind of thing that might prick your memory of the film a little while later.
We must also not discount the other reason to think negatively about Tracey, who is the only female character of note in Isle Of Dogs, being on-screen far more than Johansson’s Nutmeg or Swinton’s Oracle or Ono’s assistant. This is a recurring flaw of Anderson’s, whose films are, almost entirely, male orientated in their central players and plots, with women entering the frame mostly as love interests and mothers.
On audio terms, this is very much in line with Fantastic Mr Fox. Most characters, especially the dogs, speak in the kind of typical Anderson monotone, full of dry sarcasm and blunt straightforwardness, but it that doesn’t mean its not good. For the better outright VA, you have to look at Gerwig or McDonald. The material they have been given to output is typical Anderson fare, full of repeated jokes and open-ended wordplay, more akin to an episode of Arrested Development than the other stop-motion animation. Anderson’s sense of dark humor never tires, like a moment where the pack present Atari with a dog skeleton inside a cage when he goes looking for his pet (they didn’t realise it needed a key to open) or when the pack gently insist that, since Chief likes fighting so much, he’s the perfect candidate to take on the robot dogs. Other than that, it’s Anderson’s trademark wistfulness and ennui, as Chief ruminates on his sometimes violent past (“I bite”, he repeatedly notes as an explanation for his solitude), as he goes back and forth with Nutmeg or as larger themes of social ostracism, ethnic cleansing and genocide are tackled.
It’s in the visual, both in terms of the actual animation and in the way it is shot, that we find the most potent source of emoting. Anderson, with Fantastic Mr Fox under his belt, has only improved on the animation front. The likes of Atari or Tracey are sculpted with incredible care, to the extent that their portrait shots are able to convey worlds of information. The dogs depicted are as diverse as their real life counter-parts, and the details are astounding in their obsessiveness: Anderson, a director so intensely focused, is the kind of guy who clearly won’t accept anything less than perfection.
The larger environments are a bit greyer in colour than some of Anderson’s usual productions, but those details are evident everywhere. Some of the sequences, like one revolving around the preparation of sushi, or a sumo match or even just a conveyer belt leading through a waste reclamation plant, just draw you in with how complex and yet simple they seem. And always and anon there is Anderson’s flat symmetrical style, as if every shot you are looking at is a still painting that just happens to be coming to life. The visual inspirations are coming from all over the place really, with some scenes bringing to mind Citizen Kane, while others parrot (affectionately and respectfully) the film of Akira Kurazawa. As previously mentioned, there is a certain whiff of epic fantasy, or maybe classical epics, in the manner that some of the Trash Island sequences go off and moments where Mayor Kobayoshi’s robot dogs get into scraps with real canines seem like nods to Japanese monster movies or Saben TV. Regardless of where Anderson was taking his pointers, the whole thing comes off splendidly.
Isle Of Dogs does raise some troubling questions at times, regards the directors attitudes towards non-western cultures and women in film. But it’s strangely hard to think too negatively of Wes Anderson. Every iota of his work seems designed with intense specificity to appeal to the heart and to the brain, in every stirring line, beautifully crafted shot or interesting character. The doubts will linger, but the experience is sublime. Anderson is yet to make a bad film, an astonishing thing really when you look at the growth of his filmography. The major awards, bar one Golden Globe, may be lacking, but it seems plain to me that Anderson should be acknowledged as one of the greatest living film-makers, and perhaps one of the greatest ever, the modern embodiment of auteur theory. Isle Of Dogs, a stunning and pretty film, with intriguing things to show and to say, is only one part of the reason why, but what a part it is, all things considered. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Fox Searchlight Pictures).