Funny, I would have pegged Wes Anderson as a cat person.
Anderson’s fussy, fastidious films—and I mean that as a compliment—wouldn’t seem to have much room for dopey dogs (The Royal Tenenbaums’ beloved Buckley excluded). The slobbering, blueberry-duped guard beagle of Fantastic Mr. Fox seems to better represent his view of the species. And it’s probably best not to discuss the fate that befalls the fox terrier in Moonrise Kingdom. Dogs are too goofy and gullible for this precise, controlling filmmaker. Well, in Isle of Dogs—a stop-motion effort, like Mr. Fox—they are goofy. And messy and messed-up and heartbreaking. In fact one of them, Chief, now stands as a favorite Anderson character, while Isle itself strikes me as one of his best films.
Perhaps it’s exactly this juxtaposition—aesthetic precision with emotional ranginess—that makes Isle of Dogs such an exhilarating experience. Just when you think the movie is becoming too precious, too controlled, too obsessed with its own intricacy, a scraggly dog pukes, as a punchline. This is what Anderson’s detractors so often miss: his elaborate play sets are not arranged to be admired (entirely), but also to be knocked down with a bit of self-deflating wit. The saving grace of every Wes Anderson film is the fact that they are comedies.
Given a low growl by Bryan Cranston, Chief is one of hundreds of dogs who have been deported from a Japanese city to nearby Trash Island. The decree comes by order of authoritarian Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), for purported public health reasons. A stray used to living on the streets, but unprepared for the island’s post-apocalyptic challenges, Chief has uneasily fallen in with a pack of former pets: Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and King (Bob Balaban). When a 12-year-old boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin) sneaks onto the island to rescue his banished pet, Chief and the others must decide if they’re willing to give up their wild ways to help him. Rather than roam, should they now listen to this boy’s commands?
Isle of Dogs, then, is part puppet show and part existential meditation on the nature of free will. When we get those frequent, Jonathan Demme-like extreme close-ups of the canine characters, we see questions of self-determination in their eyes: Was I born to be wild? Is there a time to obey? What does freedom really mean? Rex, having had owners before, is more willing to follow Atari’s lead (I love the clipped eagerness Norton gives him). For Chief, the former stray, it’s a tougher sell. To him, domestication of any kind is a negation of free will. Note that Chief’s fur is black, much like the mythical wolf who raises an independent paw at the climax of Fantastic Mr. Fox.
As wonderful as Fantastic Mr. Fox is, Isle of Dogs represents a leap forward for Anderson and his extensive team of stop-motion animators. Trash Island, in particular, is a more fully realized world, one the camera explores with a nimbleness and curiosity that makes us completely forget this is all taking place on tiny stages. There’s a gorgeous, melancholy montage of Atari and the dogs traversing the island, passing crumbled, man-made edifices that have been undone by tsunamis and earthquakes (more wildness). Earlier, we’re introduced to Chief and the rest of the pack in a Sergio Leone-style showdown with another group of dogs over a fresh bag of trash. Here the animators employ the herky jerky-ness of stop-motion to their advantage, using the pauses between movements to elicit suspense, then laughs.
The animators employ the herky jerky-ness of stop-motion to their advantage, using the pauses between movements to elicit suspense and laughs.
There is emotional resonance to the imagery as well. Before setting out on their journey, Atari gathers the dogs to treat their wounds and share some snacks. (Chief stands apart from them, obstinate and independent.) They’re huddled in a cave made from discarded sake bottles, and the setting sun creates a refracted glow of green, yellow, and red, bathing the animals in gentleness. Such detailed design, which can be found throughout Isle of Dogs, is not just for show. More often than not, the aesthetic elements bring physical texture to the emotions at play.
Later in the film, there’s a wonderful sequence that reminds us that the movie’s question of free will isn’t only for the dogs. At one point Chief and Atari get separated from the rest of the pack and come across an abandoned amusement park. A rusty slide catches Atari’s attention, despite—or perhaps because of—a sign indicating he’s not tall enough to go down it. Atari and Chief have a stare-down, in which Chief makes it clear he thinks it’s too dangerous, but the boy does what he wants.
Not long after, once Atari begins to suspect that Chief may actually care about him after all, the boy attempts to play a game of fetch with the skeptical dog. Chief’s made things clear early on in the film—“I bite”—so we cringe as Atari reaches out to pet him. Apologies if this is a spoiler, but here’s where I also feel the need to note that Isle of Dogs features yet another pitch-perfect use of an airy 1960s pop song, in this case The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s “I Won’t Hurt You.”
That proves to be the only explicitly Western music in the film, however. Isle of Dogs otherwise incorporates a motif from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and other Japanese compositions, along with a score by Alexandre Desplat that emphasizes thunderous taiko drumming. (Indeed, the movie is introduced and ushered out by stop-motion taiko percussionists.) Isle of Dogs doesn’t cherry pick Japanese culture, but incorporates these influences holistically: any onscreen English text is accompanied by Japanese script; there are snippets of traditional animation that echo contemporary manga comics; and many of the landscapes recall the woodblock prints of Katsushika Hokusai. Even the mise en scene is influenced by Japanese screen prints, as when sequences set back on the mainland are divided into separate panels. It’s a movie at once of Japan and not of Japan, much like Black Panther’s vision of Africa, which is filtered through the fictional nation of Wakanda.
The Japanese setting is also crucial to the film’s politics, which are more pointed than in any previous Wes Anderson movie. With the talk of deportation and forced relocation (“You’ve got papers,” one dog says to another at one point), the story can’t help but recall the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. “Fear has been mongered,” the movie’s narrator notes as the mayor whips the populace up into an anti-dog frenzy. When Atari gets a chance to speak against the mayor’s plans, note that the only line of dialogue he utters in English is this: “Who are we?” That’s one bit Anderson wants Western audiences, in particular, to hear.
Who are we? Well, we’re free. Free to enact public policies that are based on fear and the hoarding of power. And free to adopt personal policies that guard our own independence at the expense of relationship with others. In other words, we’re free to bite. But like Chief, we’re also free to let someone care for our wounds and lovingly pat us on the head.