Film Review: Isle of Dogs

by Chris Piper on March 23, 2018

Anderson’s new film stumbles

From l-r: Bryan Cranston as Chief, Bob Balaban as King, Koyu Rankin as Atari Kobayashi, Bill Murray as Boss, Edward Norton as Rex, and Jeff Goldblum as Duke.

Early in Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson’s ninth feature film, the troubled but resolute stray dog Chief (Bryan Cranston) exhorts his pack to persevere despite extreme difficulties. “You’re Rex,” he says to Rex (Edward Norton). “You’re King,” he reminds King (Bob Balaban). “You’re Duke,” he cajoles Duke (Jeff Goldblum): “We’re a pack of scary, indestructible alpha dogs.” We the audience are now helplessly under their sway, and will follow them through this film anywhere.

We want so badly to join the pack and roam with them. We want so badly to share in the adventures not only of the plot, but of another Wes Anderson film about family and community. But though the pack does have a historic adventure ahead of them, the film that has been built around that adventure doesn’t live up to this early scene’s high expectations.

We open with a hastily sketched fable animated in woodblock style about the banishment of dogs from a fictional ancient Japan for vaguely defined misdeeds. Though in the intervening years they have returned, dogs, it seems, have always been just one species-wide mistake from being shown the door. Now, in the comically named fictional Japanese metropolis Megasaki of twenty years in the future, an outbreak of dog flu gives Mayor Kobayashi, who is up for reelection — and who’s look and acting style is an almost comic reference to Kurosawa’s greatest collaborator Toshiro Mifune — the perfect excuse to issue a midnight decree banishing all dogs to Trash Island, and a slow agonizing death. As we settle into the animated film’s stop-motion world, we’re treated to a number of visual references to both Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane and to mid-career Akira Kurosawa. Color in early scenes, mostly at night, features an interesting mix of blacks, yellows, and reds along with a Taiko drum-influenced soundtrack that’s ominous and inevitable. Sprinkled into early scenes are also liberal amounts of references to early Godzilla films, as well was obvious set design nods to mid-century Tokyo. It’s simply a feast for the eyes.

Swept up in the deportation frenzy is Spots, the specially trained body dog of Atari Kobayashi, the Mayor’s adopted son.

Bridging the human-canine divide.

Flying a plane that would only stay aloft in a Wes Anderson film, Atari flies, then crash lands on Trash Island in search of Spots, and a kind of vague rescue plan that could only come from the mind of a determined but ignorant twelve-year old. He teams up with the aforementioned alpha dog pack, and the film trots off down its plot path. A subplot revolves around a small and determined group of dog-loving scientists to find a cure for dog flu, and a high school exchange student from America who works in parallel to undermine Kobayshi and bring their their now very cranky canines back home.

Anderson’s eight previous films comprise a body of work that manages to be both visually and emotionally extremely complex, a combination shared by just a handful of directors past or present. The precise nature of his choice of frame, his shot composition, and his art direction rival Kubrick. The always surprising emotional subtlety of his characters and of the performances recalls Bergman at his best. And it could be argued that Anderson’s seemingly effortless ability to leaven his often less than fluffy stories with his own off-kiltered humor has no equal.

Here he returns once again to an examination of family and community. It can easily be argued that all of his films are keenly and almost obsessively focused on these themes. From Bottle Rocket, a joyous exercise in liminality and misplaced loyalty, through to The Grand Budapest Hotel, a quaint look at love, loss, and bonds that span decades, Anderson seems determined to show us brotherly, familial, and community bonds through predictably novel, but always charming new lenses.

Isle of Dogs is no different, and has a stiff competitor in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s urbane update on the classic Road Dahl children’s novel. A central conceit in that film involves a number of different types of animals — badgers, rats, beagles, squirrels, and of course foxes — who carry human existential angst as well as some of their animal tendencies. It’s a stretch, but it works to create an effective metaphor of the commonalities that must underlie successful communities.

The conceit in Isle of Dogs is stretched across that mysterious bond between us and our furry friends, but Anderson adds another layer of complexity by creating an English language film where all dogs speak English, but all but one of the human beings speak Japanese, without subtitles. Anderson wants to create some space between the dog and the human world, and wants language to be the barrier. He’s turned the normal person-dog equation inside out, for as anyone who’s ever owned a dog knows, we can say whatever we want to them, and they’ll forever be patiently waiting for certain sounds, or maybe whole words, and essentially just listen to the tones and inflections of everything else. In the film, all the dogs converse extremely articulately with one another, but, for the most part, have no idea what any human being is saying.

In the best of circumstances this approach would have been tricky to pull off, but here the outcome is a bunch of dogs who don’t act at all like dogs, but rather like garden variety Wes Anderson characters, who happen to be stop motion animated, furry, and four legged.

The longer I watched the film, the more I couldn’t dispel a thought: Wes Anderson doesn’t own a dog! The more I thought about it, the more I realized that those characteristic actions and behaviors we identify as “dog” were sorely lacking here. In fact, I started to watch for any tail wagging — that absolutely central doggy action — and didn’t catch even one instance!

So, while the film is joy to look at, it fails in its attempts to bridge the human – canine gap the way Anderson was able to in Mr. Fox, and everything from there devolves into a very pretty, but very unsatisfying experience. I think someone should have given Wes Anderson a puppy before he embarked on production. It would have done him, and this film a lot of good.

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Isle of Dogs opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Chris Piper

Regardless of the age, Chris Piper thinks that a finely-crafted script, brought to life by willing actors guided by a sure-handed director, supported by a committed production and post-production team, for the benefit of us all, is just about the coolest thing ever.

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