Film Review: ‘Isle of Dogs’
If stop motion didn’t already exist, one gets the feeling Wes Anderson would have invented it. It’s difficult to imagine any other animation style working as well for him. Every characteristic of stop motion is reflected in his cinema: the detailing, the tactility, the slight formality, a world of effort concentrated in a single gesture or frame.
Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s second animated feature after his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, and the first he’s built from an original story. And I do mean original. One can picture Anderson telling studio executives, “So, there’s this evil mayor of a dystopian Japanese city who banishes all the dogs to a trash island after an outbreak of canine flu. Tilda Swinton is a pug named Oracle. I’m thinking I’ll make it mostly in Japanese.” And, after an awkward silence, “Bill Murray’s in it.”
In a prologue rendered in ravishing still images, we’re told that the cat-loving Kobayashi dynasty had once waged war on dogs, nearly wiping out the entire population, before a boy samurai killed the head of the clan. But the ancient grudge has persisted; the mayor who orders the exile of the dogs is named Kobayashi. He starts with Spots, the bodyguard hound of his young ward, Atari. Soon, all dogs in Megasaki—unused to fending for themselves, many of them down with snout fever—have been deported to the trash heap of an island off the coast.
Even in a Wes Anderson film—not the most canine-friendly environment—you apparently can’t keep a boy and his dog apart. Atari crash-lands his plane on the island and is discovered by Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Despite Chief’s protests—he was a stray back in Megasaki, and feels no kinship towards humans—they decide to help him look for Spots.
It’s easy to get lost in the off-kilter rhythms of stop-motion—all those famous voices charmingly out-of-sync with the facial movements of the characters—but try and tear your gaze from time to time to the ingenious, ever-changing backdrops. The trash piles up scene after scene like so many art installations (a cave constructed out of used sake bottles—the dogs did that?), and a couple of the landscapes left me short of breath, as when we look down on Atari and the pack walking in single file, a row of rusted trucks on one side, a sheer drop on the other, The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s I Won’t Hurt You gently throbbing on the soundtrack.
In the wake of the film’s release, some have expressed discomfort with what they think are Japanese stereotypes that Anderson has used. I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone to not feel culturally offended, but it’s worth noting that Anderson’s style has always been dependent on archetypes, from artistic, high-strung New York Jews to suave, sexually flexible Continentals. His vision of India in The Darjeeling Limited struck me as neither offensive not authentic—just Anderson looking, in his peculiar way, at a part of the world that fascinates him. Similarly, I’d hesitate to attach deeper significance to the deportations in Isle of Dogs—if Anderson’s a political filmmaker, he keeps it well-hidden. One charge against him I’ve never agreed with, though, is that he’s too clever, not emotional enough. Show me another director who can take a conversation between two dogs, strangers speaking in uninflected voices in the dark of night , and make it hurt like a Raymond Carver story.