Isle of Dogs | Review
A Dog’s Tale: Anderson Returns to Animation with Scruffy, Eclectic Fantasy
We’ve come to expect a certain technical formality from Wes Anderson, even across a resume consumed with the same themes usually characterized by hyper-literate yet dysfunctional heteronormative families or communal portraitures torn asunder by angst and anguish. A crusader of nostalgic tendencies, especially as it pertains to the innocent yearnings of childhood which eventually evaporate into the ether of disappointing adulthood, Anderson returns to stop-motion animation with what stands as his messiest (at least in a narrative sense) output to date, the Japanese themed Isle of Dogs. Whereas Anderson’s last foray into animation was an adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl novel The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), his latest is an original treatment thanks to a collaboration with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura (an actor who appeared in Lost in Translation and The Grand Budapest Hotel) about how dogs became a scapegoat for Japanese society’s ills. An expositional history of the cat-loving culture portrays how dogs have come to be banished to the dumping ground of the rather efficiently named Trash Island a la Escape from New York style.
After centuries of uneasy co-dependence with the feline worshipping Japanese locals, all dogs inhabiting the imaginary coastal city of Megasaki are blamed for a mass epidemic of a flu outbreak threatening to evolve into a strain affecting humans. Using a public health initiative as an excuse, the corrupt mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) has all the dogs in the city dumped onto nearby Trash Island, where they are forced to live with the rats amongst the garbage heaps. The first dog to go is Spots, the canine bodyguard of Kobayashi’s ward, his orphaned nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin). After six months, Atari runs away from home and flies a plane to Trash Island to search for Spots, a canine who has now become part of a mysterious group of cannibalistic dogs living on the outskirts of the island. As a dogged Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) finds a cure for the deadly flu (with the help of Assistant Scientist Yoko-ono voice by Yoko Ono), the deeper conspiracy behind Kobayashi’s treatment of the dogs is unraveled by foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig).
While some sources take pains to highlight a certain level of cultural appropriation going on with Anderson’s latest endeavor, he makes an attempt to sidestep such claims by making this more of an homage to its setting than anything else (despite, curiously, insisting the dogs not only speak but also only comprehend English). In keeping with its premise, this is a much scruffier, less streamlined narrative than what we’ve come to expect from Anderson, and as such, doesn’t suffer from the weight of its own pretentiousness as have some of his past works.
Blood and violence, surprisingly, provide dashes of the kind of grisly and grotesque tendencies often scrubbed clean from Anderson’s oft-sanitized predecessors. On the other hand, it’s an undeniably sweet film, to the point of a sugar overdose, and Isle of Dogs also has the tendency to feel a bit twee, like an approximation of a Disney film’s simplified emotional fervor, such as Lady and the Tramp (1955), or perhaps the much darker MGM children’s classic All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989).
As far as Anderson’s own in-house oeuvre, this feels similar to 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom, except with dogs instead of children, while DP Tristan Oliver is allowed some playful transitions (unlike the sometimes story-line suffocating perfection often witnessed in Anderson). With Courtney B. Vance providing omniscient narration (and a superb, bombastic score from Alexander Desplat), a score of the auteur’s regular players have key voice work moments, from Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Ed Norton and Jeff Goldblum as a pack of helpful mutts, to Scarlett Johansson and Harvey Keitel as love interest and savior.
Frances McDormand and Greta Gerwig are on hand for some Anglophone interpretation and guidance, while F. Murray Abraham and Tilda Swinton, although both brilliantly cast as soothsayers of Trash Island, feel incredibly underutilized. Sweet, and even a titch inconsequential, Isle of Dogs drills down into Anderson’s signature emotional reunion between estranged entities, and Koyu Rankin’s Atari does score some meaningful moments with a pair of dogs energetically voiced by Bryan Cranston and Liev Schreiber.