I have a fear of pets. To be clear, this is not the same as a fear of animals. Rather, I experience of a specific anxiety and concern regarding the concept of pet ownership. I’m uneasy of the notion of getting close to a creature who will never feel affection towards me the way I might feel towards them–even if their adoration for me manifests in a more instinctual sort of manner. Moreover, given that humans generally outlast house animals, I’m saddened by hypothetically living with an animal for years and years, who I take with me through various phases of my life, who I then outlive. And I’m troubled by the notion of just replacing them. Like a broken appliance. Like a prop. The emotional commitment is just too much for me. People are sometimes the same, but something about having a cat or dog, even in the abstract, just rubs me the wrong way, even when I sometimes find myself longing for that sort of inter-species connection.
So, while I’m not wild about Isle of Dogs, something about Wes Anderson’s love letter to man’s best friend by way of a westernized–or Wes-ternized, if you will–homage of Japan does move me. His second stop motion film since 2009’s solid adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs is another animal vehicle, complete with all of the Andersonian tricks and tropes we’ve come to know and love, with some welcome deviations of the formula. True to form, Anderson crafts a fabulously realized and ornate world as a backdrop for the chaotic machinations of a lively cast of characters for Anderson to play with, and maybe even find a genuine soul, as well.
In a semi-futuristic Japan, dogs have been subjugated to Trash Island, due to an outbreak of dog flu and snout fever. In an effort to find his exiled dog Spots (Liev Schreiber), Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) sets off to Trash Island in a plane of his own design. Atari’s plane crashes, and is taken in by a pack of alphas. Though domesticated Rex (Edward Norton), Duke (Jeff Goldbum), Boss (Bill Murray), and King (Bob Baladan) are eager to help Atari, the lone stray Chief (Bryan Cranston) would much rather eat the boy. After all, the dogs on the island fight over food drops consisting of additional garbage–leftovers that have been packaged for the dogs’ consumption. But despite Chief’s protests, the group resolves to help Atari find Spots.
Meanwhile, on the mainland of Japan, in Megasaki, scientists have zeroed in on a cure for the canine-triggered malady. When Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) tries to inform Mayor Kenji Kobayashi (Konichi Nomura)–who is Atari’s steward–the mayor will not hear the professor out. After all, the Kobayashi family has a legacy of feline allegiance coupled with generational animosity towards dogs. When Professor Watanabe goes on the offensive, Kobayashi censures the good doctor. Enter Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig). An American transfer student who senses a conspiracy that sends her down the rabbit hole, eventually unraveling the (admittedly simplistic) scheme in no time–as well as developing a crush on Atari.
During the search for Spots, Atari and Chief are separated from the rest of the pack. Inevitably, the two grow closer to one another. Though Chief hasn’t always been a stray, he has always been wary of humans–going so far as to bite a child who tries to pet him. Anderson’s movies are often about renegades, or outsiders spurred on by delusions of grandeur–think Steve Zissou, or M. Gustave, or Mr. Fox. Usually, these characters are at the center of Anderson’s stories, but the closest anyone comes to that description is Tracy Walker, and she’s relegated to the sidelines. Chief is a dog who has been hurt before, unsure if he can love, while Atari just wants his best friend back. They find each other the way Max Fischer finds Mr. Blume, or how Sam Shakusky finds Suzy Bishop, or how Anthony finds Dignan. They are both fractured, but find solace in one another, warring against an indifferent authoritarian regime, even if they’re not the likeliest pair.
And this largely gets at the heart of Isle of Dogs. This notion of communication. We are capable of loving creatures we can’t literally understand. Humans and other animals may never be able to speak the same tongue, but we are still capable of connection. Isle of Dogs is very purposeful in exploring this link. Unless one has enough fluency in Japanese, the only comprehensible human speakers are Tracy Walker and Interpreter Nelson (Frances McDormand). Yet, we can gather from context clues how the plot moves. This is another prevalent theme in Anderson’s oeuvre: The struggle to be understood or accepted. And yet, Isle of Dogs takes this notion and puts a very literal, often revealing spin on this conflict. That Anderson manages to get away with this speaks to his abilities as a storyteller, as well as our capacity to translate from universal signals.
And Chief’s arc, in particular, is frighteningly familiar. Here is a dog who meets our protagonist, sees some shrapnel his head, and defaults to devouring the kid. Chief routinely reminds us, “I bite.” These two words say two crucial things about Chief. He is unafraid to throw down, or tear someone apart if they’re enough of a threat. But he’s so used to having his guard up that he doesn’t know if he can be any other way. The notion that one’s coping mechanism becomes a person’s identity. As the other alphas will profess, Chief is the strongest scrapper of the bunch. But really, anyone can learn to protect themselves. There’s just as much strength and fear in being available for others, but that’s not so easily learned.
Anderson has never wanted for sentimentality or pathos. In fact, his films are often deeply sad or heartwarming when need be. And Isle of Dogs is no different. As per usual, Anderson couches the emotional trajectory in a kinetic plot–in this case, there are roughly three or four stories moving at any given time–with his impressive display of discipline. The symmetry is there. The wry humor. The treasure trove of sight gags. As he has for his last few pictures, Anderson employs yet another impeccable, rousing score from Alexandre Desplat. Even in the dullest of moments, Isle of Dogs is consistently in motion. Anderson is such an adventurous filmmaker and sharp stylist, and since Fantastic Mr. Fox, he has refined his technique to a tee.
Yet, Isle of Dogs feels almost too neat. Perhaps I’m taking Anderson for granted. Perhaps I’m worn out on his tidied aesthetic–one that he has been experimenting with since Rushmore. Because Isle of Dogs is in no way a bad film. I can’t even get behind the concerns of appropriation or white salvation, because his Japan doesn’t even feel like a real place–nor is Tracy Walker enough of a presence for her or her whiteness to dominate the narrative. Perhaps this is because he puts world-building over character—Chief among them being the only truly fleshed out presence. The story is much too simple to allow for his characters, always the pulse for any Wes Anderson feature, to feel as thin as they are. For a story about recognizing others with greater depth than what is on the surface, Isle of Dogs struggles to leave much of an impression.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to like. Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s most overt foray into social justice–or perhaps his most obvious, given the ostracizing of “the other” by the powers that be, and the systemic abuse that befalls marginalized groups–is a timely and necessary, if a little too quickly resolved. His knack for design is as unimpeachable as ever, even if they’re familiar. And his usual roster of players–Murray, Norton, Goldblum, Angelica Huston, and even Roman Coppola–Isle of Dogs is as accomplished as any of his best films, but perhaps not as realized, and rarely as transcendent. I enjoy Isle of Dogs well enough, and I respect Anderson’s film even more.
Rating – 8.0/10