REVIEW: ‘Isle of Dogs’ trades Wes Anderson’s coziness for scrappiness

Isle of Dogs , directed by Wes Anderson.

Isle of Dogs, directed by Wes Anderson.

At some point, maybe after several more decades’ worth of his films, someone will crack the mathematical formula that describes just how much Wes Anderson’s movies deviate from reality. Whatever the figure is, I have no doubt it will be unflinchingly precise. Who knows, maybe it will help us bring a little more balance into the real world.

It’s a bit depressing to think that a filmmaker’s style might be reduced to simple number or equation, but then again, I can also imagine one of Anderson’s characters matter-of-factly explaining how it makes perfect sense. Maybe it’s because the films are best described as feature-length Rube Goldberg machines: each one a series of deceptively simple mechanisms and events, chained together to accomplish something that might have had a far simpler solution in another filmmaker’s hands. The fun isn’t in the final result, but the wild permutations in between.

That’s one of the things I love about Anderson’s work. Stylistically, it’s instantly recognizable – and often parodied. But for me, the style is a vehicle for beautiful, original experiences: an eccentric, estranged family repairing their relationship, an undersea revenge fable, the slow decay of a cultural and economic institution, or in the case of Anderson’s newest film, the repatriation of thousands of exiled pets to a futuristic Japanese city.

In Isle of Dogs, the aforementioned distance from reality afforded by the filmmaker’s style goes a certain way toward addressing some of the allegations of cultural appropriation or insensitivity leveled by some critics. While I’m not the best person to evaluate how well the film stands up to these readings – I recommend a recent discussion between Jen Yamato and Justin Chang of the L.A. Times for that – some of the critiques are certainly valid.

Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) is one of only two human characters with English dialogue.

Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) is one of only two human characters with English dialogue.

Yamato and Chang are correct that the movie is most involving during its scenes on Trash Island, where all the dogs of Megasaki City are banished at the start of the film (due to a cat-loving mayor and spurious news of a “dog flu”). Meanwhile, the Japanese setting, and the activities and (un-subtitled) dialogue of the Japanese characters, don’t always feel as integrated with the rest of the movie. Would Isle of Dogs be the same movie if it relocated to a Scandanavian or African country? Is an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) really the only person who can kickstart the opposition to the film’s crooked politicians?

But even the people suspicious of Anderson’s approach to his setting have conceded that the film still works. At the core of the movie is an unshakeable bond between a boy and his dog: Atari (Koyu Rankin), ward of Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), ventures to Trash Island to rescue his bodyguard dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). Along the way, he encounters the many residents of the desolated landscape: Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and Boss (Bill Murray) make up the core group. Of these dogs, Chief’s story is the most poignant. He grew up as a stray on the streets of the city, and has a dim view of humans. Naturally, Chief eventually comes around, but not before an enchanting cascade of Andersonian moments.

Chief (Bryan Cranston) comes to care for Atari (Koyu Rankin).

Chief (Bryan Cranston) comes to care for Atari (Koyu Rankin).

It’s the relationship between Atari, Chief and Spots that really fuels the film. Anderson and his team punctuate the movie with intense close-ups of both the dogs and Atari, deep in thought, tears coming to their eyes as they think about the beings they care about. These sequences are a textbook case of how screenplay, voice performance and stop-motion animation can fuse to create unexpectedly emotional results, which is all the more impressive considering the laborious process of capturing the animation.

The densely packed visuals dreamt up by the filmmakers invite multiple interpretations; Isle of Dogs is crawling with onscreen text, anime-style security footage, and sight gags. For the viewers not moved by Atari’s main quest, there are strong whiffs of commentary in other parts of the film, which might be tied back to any number of frustrating political situations in the news. By the time the characters reach an experimental testing facility on the far side of Trash Island, the film has connected itself to issues as varied as immigration, scientific testing on animals, and ethnic cleansing. The intellectual and emotional preoccupations of Anderson’s characters in other films suddenly feel very petty.

Will Isle of Dogs convert Anderson skeptics or haters? I’m not convinced. For some viewers, the filmmaker’s style will always be a stumbling block. But for people who feel comfortable in these worlds, the new movie asserts itself as more than just another Anderson adventure with fur; there are soulful creatures here, even if they don’t always do what we want or expect.

Isle of Dogs gets three and a half stars out of four.

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Stray thoughts

  • The detail of newborn puppies sounding like human infants was a heart-melting touch.
  • I’m definitely a dog person, but my mind reels with possibilities for an as-yet-unrealized scene with Megasaki’s cats.
  • Who do we have to pay off to get this film to win Best Animated Feature at next year’s Oscars?