Review: 'Isle of Dogs'

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Special Relationship

2018 / USA, Germany / 101 min. / Directed by Wes Anderson / Opened in select cities on Mar. 23, 2018; opens locally on Mar. 28, 2018

by:
Andrew Wyatt

One of the hidden depths to be found in DreamWorks Animation’s proudly anachronistic fantasy romp How to Train Your Dragon (2010) is an allegorical one. Angle it the right way, and Dean DeBois and Chris Sanders’ feature can be viewed a lucid metaphor for the mystery of domestication: the fearful, fumbling process by which wild animals and ancient humans established a symbiotic relationship over thousands of years. That process may have been initiated for utilitarian reasons, but the bond that resulted transcended prosaic matters such as guard duty, vermin removal, and overland transport.

Nowhere is that connection more nakedly sincere than between humans and dogs – a bone-deep psychological interdependence with the distinctive ache of unqualified love. In his new stop-motion animated feature, Isle of Dogs, writer-director Wes Anderson demonstrates that he grasps this bond as only a dog-lover can, even as he resists excessively romanticizing its messier aspects. (If one harbors any doubt about Anderson’s intentions, one should read the film’s title out loud five times fast. It’s all right there on the tin, as they say.) The film presents a twee yet disquieting science-fiction fable, a kind of speculative doomsday bookend to Dragon’s flashy metaphorical origin story.

Isle of Dogs imagines a dystopian future in which animosity toward canines has become outright municipal policy. It posits a not-too-distant tomorrow – “20 years in the future,” as the narrator (Courtney B. Vance) explains, but explicitly not 2038 – in which the loyalty that once intertwined humans and dogs is beginning to unravel. Not incidentally, the failure is exclusively on the Homo sapiens end of the relationship. In the Japanese city of Megasaki, an outbreak of “Snout Fever” among the city’s dog population has created a looming health crisis, with the virus threatening to escalate into an inter-species plague. In response, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) orders all the city’s canines – pets and strays alike – to be exiled to an offshore landfill gulag known as Trash Island.

The motives at work here are uglier than mere public-health concerns, however. As a sagacious dog named Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) explains in a prelude illustrated with doggified versions of traditional Japanese paintings, the cat-loving Kobayashis have a long history of anti-canine hostility, culiminating in a legendary war between the clan’s retainers and the fiefdom’s dogs. However, the mayor’s adopted nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), has shrugged off the old family hatreds, developing a close friendship with his loyal personal guard dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). (Their relationship is further solidified by a pair of radio headsets that keep them in constant contact with one another.) Unfortunately, to illustrate that even his household is not above the law, the mayor declares that Spots is the first pooch to be banished to Trash Island.

Heartbroken and outraged, Atari steals a small, single-engine plane and puddle-jumps over to the island in search of Spots. There, he encounters a rough-and-tumble but companionable pack of dogs: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and Chief (Bryan Cranston). Given that they are dogs and Atari is a 12-year-old boy, the pack is instinctively eager to help – except, that is, for the standoffish Chief, a stray with a defiantly “anti-master” outlook and an aggressive streak. (“I bite,” he explains simply and coldly.) The group sets out on a quest to consult Jupiter and his companion, Oracle (Tilda Swinton), wise old dogs who know much of the island’s secrets, and perhaps also the whereabouts of Spots. During their journey, Atari and Co. are hounded by jackbooted Megasaki City security forces, who deploy flying drones, troops with cattle prods, and even robot dogs to track down the mayor’s wayward nephew and subdue his canine “kidnappers.”

Given that Isle of Dogs is a late-period Wes Anderson feature, there are unsurprisingly plenty of other moving parts in the film’s plot. The most conspicuous of these include the efforts by microbiologist and rival politician Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) to develop a cure for Snout Flu, as well as the muckraking of American foreign-exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig), a dog-loving wannabe revolutionary with copious freckles and a strawberry-blond afro. These and other threads are secondary but nonetheless vital components of Isle of Dogs’ knotty plot, which – befitting a film literally constructed at a toy-like scale – gradually clicks together like a gratifying puzzle.

Strip away all the corporate conspiracy, retro-futurist technology, and demi-Marxist rabble-rousing, however, and Isle of Dogs is essentially a samurai story: five once-mighty ronin on a righteous mission on behalf of a plucky, resolute outsider. Combined with the fantastical Japanese setting, the constant references to “masters” are the dead giveaway that this is Anderson by way of Akira Kurosawa (The Hidden Fortress, 1958), Kenji Misumi (The Tale of Zataoichi, 1962), and Masaki Kobayashi (Harakiri, 1962) (the latter hat-tipped in the mayoral clan name). Many of the hallmarks of the Edo Period historical epic are here: exiled warriors, a war-torn landscape, poisoned rivals, a lost birthright, corrupt authorities, and numerous, brutally violent confrontations.

Of course, Isle of Dogs is a also PG-13 animated adventure, one with the cozy, slightly shabby look of a well-worn stuffed animal. Accordingly, rather than gore-spattered katana duels, Anderson conjures abstracted Andy Capp-style violence: roiling masses of cottony clouds from which various fists, jaws, feet, and paws emerge. It’s at once cartoonish and savage. Ears are torn off, fur is scorched, eyes are blinded, and poor Atari has a metal piston improbably lodged in his skull. This sense of real and lethal peril – the film’s diorama-like unreality notwithstanding – is eminently fitting for a story that is so keenly attuned to the distinctive angst of the human-canine relationship. Given their species' comparatively short lifespans and their willingness to risk themselves bodily for the people they love, mortality seems to loom over every dog's story.  We outlive our pooches, but their devotion outshines our own. 

Their obvious commonalities notwithstanding, Isle of Dogs is miles apart from the handsome, pastoral world of Anderson’s previous stop-motion effort, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), with its autumnal landscapes and nattily attired animal heroes. Indeed, the director’s latest feature doesn’t quite look like any other film in his oeuvre. Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s most overtly apocalyptic work to date, in terms of both its visuals and its tone. The usual bijou charm of the director's films is still there, but it is often expressed through desolate coastlines, rusted industrial ruins, and literal mountains of garbage that recall Wall-E’s (2009) post-human purgatory. There is color in this world – magically so in the case of a massif of discarded sake bottles that becomes a kaleidoscopic wonder by night – but it is often stained, faded, and tarnished. Anderson even flirts with greyscale compositions in select shots, suggesting nuclear winter and Plutonic desolation. The dogs themselves are the apotheosis of the film’s “ugly-pretty” aesthetic. Wide-eyed, toothy, and incurably scruffy, they’re appealing but also faintly grotesque, as if the director is flouting the kawaii (cuteness) that one expects of Japanese cartoon critters. 

Despite all this visual grunginess, Anderson’s usual fascination with right angles, clean lines, and carefully balanced compositions is still on display, and in this respect, the film’s faintly fantastical Japanese setting – futuristic, yet unquestionably mid-century analog in its influences – is a perfect fit for the director’s sensibilities. (One passage that chronicles the preparation of a perfect bento box through a series of overhead close-up shots is quintessential Anderson.) Isle of Dogs further elaborates on its striking “alternate universe Japan” milieu with evocative references to the iconography of Soviet propaganda, the Black Power movement, and past cinematic landmarks (among them: Citizen Kane, 1941; From Russia with Love, 1963; Dr. Strangelove, 1964; and City of Lost Children, 1995).

Isle of Dogs stands apart from Anderson’s other works in another, equally arresting way: It’s the first feature in the director’s filmography that is not concerned with the anguish of talented but deeply flawed man-children. (A description that even applies, after a fashion, to the otherwise debonair Mr. Fox, who is unable to tame his self-destructive compulsions.) The film’s dog characters might speak with human voices – “Barks have been translated to English,” the film clarifies at the outset – but they have recognizably canine personalities. They are characterized by straightforward urges, naked anxieties, and a binary outlook where, for example, every dog is either a beloved pet or an outcast stray. The agony that these pooches feel isn’t mopey and self-involved, but stark and searing: They just want to love humans and be loved in return.

Anderson maintains some distance between the audience and his human characters by having the latter speak in Japanese without subtitles. (However, dual Japanese/English labels abound in the production design, and critical dialogue is often helpfully interpreted by a human or computer translator.) Tracy is the only Homo sapiens who speaks in English for long stretches. Intriguingly, while she is initially positioned as a white-savior figure, Tracy’s firebrand efforts ultimately amount to less than the heroics of the dogs and the Japanese characters – particularly a hacker mole embedded in the Megasaki security apparatus. What’s more, her righteous, pro-canine zeal is revealed to be rooted in personal loss: Her own cherished pet has also been exiled to Trash Island.

The humans in Isle of Dogs are mostly defined by whether they are pro- or anti-dog, and the nuances of their inner lives are, perhaps appropriately, a mystery to the film’s canines. (This psychological shallowness is reflected in the design of the human characters, which seems to be influenced to a degree by traditional Noh masks and Bunraku puppets.) Anderson’s film is, in part, a scathing indictment of humankind’s inexcusable apathy and cruelty toward its Best Friend (and all animals). In this respect, it makes for an affecting companion film to last year’s unabashedly pro-vegetarian Okja. However, Isle of Dogs doesn’t delve into the human capacity for viciousness with any psychological depth. The Kobayashis are motivated almost entirely by cartoonish anti-dog bigotry, which the film suggests is little more than a facile extension of their affection for cats. (Felines, notably, do not speak in Isle of Dogs, and are depicted as enigmatic, sour-faced lap accessories.)

If Isle of Dogs lacks some of the prickly emotional complexity that characterizes many of Anderson’s features, it makes up for that paltriness through sheer intensity of feeling. Indeed, the filmmakers are acutely aware that the devotion of a dog is potent precisely because it lacks complexity. A dog’s love is absolute and unconditional, and what Isle of Dogs captures so marvelously (and heartbreakingly) is the paradox of that bond, which is at once so ordinary and so miraculous. In a flashback, the film shows the first meeting between Atari and Spots, whose relationship is intended to be a formal one between ward and guardian. From the outset, however, it’s clear that the child regards his canine security detail as his best friend, while the all-business Spots, to his chagrin, almost immediately begins to soften under the influence of Atari’s ear scratches and whispered assurances that he is, in fact, a Good Boy.

This pathos doesn’t weigh the film down, or diminish the abundant droll comedy and spirited cartoon action that it offers. However, Dogs is foremost a clarion call for empathy on behalf of Canis familiaris. It's a sharp rap across our ape knuckles, a reminder of humankind’s responsibilities towards its oldest coevolutionary companion species. Anderson achieves this not through the application of pandering cutesiness, but by anthropomorphizing his dog characters just enough to make their boundless affection understandable and relatable. Ironically, Isle of Dogs’ canines are exemplars of the sort of constancy that so often eludes the humans that inhabit the rest of Anderson’s filmography. It is a love uncluttered by pride, jealousy, or resentment. Dogs, the film suggests, are four-legged moral superheroes, gifted with the capacity to awe, humble, and inspire humanity by example. It’s no accident that one of the film’s human character recites a haiku that paraphrases Alan Moore’s query about the fate of Superman: Whatever happened to Man’s Best Friend?

Rating: B+