Wes Anderson’s Latest has Gone to the Dogs, and the Dogs are Doggone.
DIRECTED BY WES ANDERSON/2018
If we know one thing from the filmography of Wes Anderson, it’s that he most definitely does not love dogs.
…Or does he?
If so, he’s had a fatalistic way of showing it, as several of his live action films feature pointless or nearly pointless dog deaths. But, at least man’s best friend makes the cut – in the Anderson oeuvre, cats are basically nary to be seen.
Now, he comes at us with a stop-motion animated dark comedy that’s not only all about dogs, but bearing a title that proclaims his love for them. Naturally, if Wes Anderson loved dogs, he’s not just going to come out and say it, or buy a bumper sticker like everyone else. No, his method is to make a wildly brilliant, wholly unique and oddly imaginative film, with an oblique title that when spoken quickly, sounds like “I love dogs”.
Isle of Dogs bolts to the top of the liter in terms of films made by filmmakers when they’re allowed to do whatever they want. This is Wes Anderson unleashed, and standing tall.
The fun novelty of the title is ever so lessened by the knowledge of an actual Isle of Dogs, a peninsula located in the U.K., off the Themes. This movie has nothing to do with that. In fact, that real one is likely doomed to be a disappointment for visitors, henceforth maybe “the boring Isle of Dogs”.
Like 2009’s fantastic Fantastic Mr. Fox before it, Isle of Dogs goes all in for Rankin-Bass style herky-jerky stop motion animation (manipulation of actual armatured miniatures). The result is an even more impressive, highly tactile “reality” of embraced artifice and hands-on world building. If Isle of Dogs isn’t in the year-end races for Best Animated Feature, voters deserve a swat on the nose.
As anyone who’s paid attention has come to expect from any Wes Anderson film, the whole thing is playfully meticulous. It’s not just that everything has its place, it’s that everything has its rigidly precise place. From the typeface of every sign or label to the size, color, placement and veneer of said signs or labels, to the times when maybe something isn’t symmetrical… this being animation, the filmmaker and his crew get to literally create their world from scratch. And boy, do they ever.
It’s Japan, but not as we know it. This is some sort of retro-futuristic Japan, straight out of arbitrary 1960’s Godzilla sequels and Seijun Suzuki. It might just be the greatest feature length embodiment of geek-cool/uncool to date. Amid the sparse/detailed visuals of shoji screens, room-sized computers, trash piles, Japanese signage and analog tech, a cruel plot to abolish all dogs has been enacted. A new canine virus, snout fever, has infected the pooch population, causing the terse and hateful mayor to abolish them all to Trash Island.
Trash Island is exactly what it sounds like: a lonely island of nothing but trash. And now, every dog in Japan. They are unceremoniously dropped there in their dog cages; if they can’t ever get them open, that’s too bad.
But, most dogs do. Only the most high-tech locks tend to prove fatal. Packs are formed as the beasts learn to shed domesticity in favor of survival. They’re an ungroomed and emaciated lot, but they tend to get on with life, roaming the garbagey landscape in search of scraps, only occasionally reminiscing about the old days and their former owners. (Yes, they speak. As an opening title informs, all dog language has been translated to our language.)
Then one day, a young boy crashes his plane on Trash Island. He’s in search of his beloved dog, Spot. And with this, now we have the plot of Isle of Dogs. Who is this “Spot”, and where the heck is he, anyway??
Meanwhile, on the mainland, a sad but nutty political allegory is taking place. The wicked Mayor who ordered the banishment of the dogs (he’s a cat person, shudder shudder) is working to diabolically suppress an imminent cure for snout fever. A round-haired American girl is leading a group of activists in opposition to everything this guy does and stands for, but to little avail. No one will listen to the professor who’s so painfully close to nailing the cure. Could it be that there’s more to this banishment than meets the eye? (Or nose?)
Isle of Dogs is many things – a dog movie, and animated feature, an off-kilter family film, a Japanese movie (not really), a star-packed ensemble (really), and one hilarious auteur statement from the ever distinct Wes Anderson. But, above all of those things, Isle of Dogs bolts to the top of the liter in terms of films made by filmmakers when they’re allowed to do whatever they want. This is Wes Anderson unleashed, and standing tall. Albeit, on four legs.
With so many paw prints all over the cast list, it’s easy to lose track of who’s in this movie. Anderson newcomer Bryan Cranston is in the Alpha role, playing the mangy stray, Chief. Lady to his Tramp is Nutmeg, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Then there’s the primary pack of one-time domestics, Rex, King, Boss, and Duke, voiced respectively by Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum.
Other members of the canine cast include Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Liev Schreiber and Fisher Stevens. Surely there are more, but let’s list off some of the actors playing the human characters: Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Ken Watanabe, and Koyo Rankin as the no-nonsense boy pilot named Atari. Being that this is a Japanese story, there’s no shortage of other Japanese talent, including the thus-far Anderson/Coppola exclusive, Kunichi Nomura as the villainous Mayor Koboyashi, character actor Akira Takayama as Mayor-Domo, and stage actor Akira Ito as the good Professor Watanabe. And lest we forget, Yoko Ono as Assistant Scientist Yoko-ono. Kunichi Nomura helped to write the film, along with Anderson, Roman Coppola, and Jason Schwartzman.
Funny, sad and even kind of touching, Isle of Dogs might just be what no one expects in a movie. It’s “all the things”, yet very few of them. It’s animated, and with talking dogs, but not a kids movie. That said, a kid with a right subversive streak will love it and want to take it home. It’s a mutt all right, but sometimes mutts are the best. And this, friends, is just such a time. Wes Anderson and his devoted crew of animators, actors and crew have brought back one heck of a prize in their strangest and perhaps funniest game of moviemaking fetch to date. There’s no doubt fans of the filmmaker will be sitting pretty for this movie for years to come. Isle of Dogs, and so will you.