What it’s about: Chief is a stray among a group of dogs that have been relocated to an abandoned island off of Japan following an outbreak of a canine disease called “snout fever.” When a young boy crash lands on the island looking for his beloved Spots, Chief leads a ragtag gang to find him. In the human world, a young foreign exchange student leads protests against a corrupt, cat-loving mayor who is behind the anti-dog legislation and perhaps something even more sinister. Finding Spots and taking on Mayor Kobayashi won’t be easy, but Atari and Tracy Walker and their friends are determined.
First of all, Isle of Dogs really isn’t for kids. Youngsters might find some of the dogs cute, but the film is full of very adult material including but not limited to political assassination, dictatorial rule, starvation and disease. There are many moments that are legitimately frightening. A lot of the dialogue is in Japanese without subtitles. And, of course, there is Wes Anderson’s trademark tone and style with visual symmetry, alienated characters, and hipster affectations.
I found Isle of Dogs to be all style over substance, even relative to Wes Anderson’s body of work. The style is predictably great, though, with beautiful animation, a distinct look using split screens and staging that forces perspective, and a quick, energetic pace. The narrative takes on a pretty simple search and rescue plot that doesn’t do anything particularly new or interesting.
The biggest problem with the substance of Isle of Dogs and another reason why it isn’t a great kids movie is that it is extremely emotionally detached. Despite being about a boy’s love for his dog, every character is too at-arms-length emotionally. This isn’t strange for Anderson, but his best films have genuine emotional connections among the characters. There is anger, but it is more grit-your-teeth anger than expressive anger. Otherwise most of the characters deliver their dialogue in monotone.
The exception is the Japanese characters, which starts to get into some of the film’s racial controversy. Overall, the Japanese-ness of the film didn’t bother me, but it didn’t add much to the film besides the obvious cinematic influences and references. I actually appreciate that the film takes language seriously, something that many films do not, and brings in the Japanese language often without giving the English-language audience a translation. The most interesting thing this does for the film is put the viewer into the headspace of the dogs, who don’t understand the boy’s language other than through his tone, gestures, and a few simple words. This is pretty clever and effective.
My biggest issue with the setting is that most of the characters who speak Japanese are aggressive and scary. These characters are definitely coming from well established samurai and yakuza types and on that level they work well. But it comes off as a stereotype as a strange “other” that I don’t see working well with younger viewers.
The film takes place 20 years in the future but all the electronic technology is from 20 years ago. How very Wes Anderson.
Highlights of the animation: dog fighting dust clouds, sushi preparation, mayor Kobayashi’s design, and the small touches of traditional animation seen on video screens throughout the film.
A great Anderson trope that finds its way into Isle of Dogs in a clever way is a translator character who is used through most of the political subplot -- giving the weakest narrative section of the film a bit more personality. Voice-over narrators are vital characters in much of Anderson’s work, from Bob Balaban in Moonrise Kingdom to Alec Baldwin’s voice in The Royal Tenenbaums. By the end of Isle of Dogs, the translator becomes strangely personable.
I don’t know how much I can add to the discussion of the “white savior” plot, but it was definitely an aspect that I noticed -- there are plenty of passionate and smart takes out there that you can find. One thing that my wife pointed out to me following the film, however, is how the high school students standing up against political corruption is an interesting thematic tie-in to what is happening today in the discourse on gun control. It doesn’t make American Tracy Walker with her blonde afro fit into the film any better, but it is an interesting coincidence.
Most of my thoughts probably sound pretty negative and while Isle of Dogs is a disappointment and in the lower half of my Wes Anderson rankings, there is a lot of great film artistry on display. If you are generally a Wes Anderson fan, you will generally like Isle of Dogs. If you find the director to be pretentious, you’ll probably find Isle of Dogs pretentious. But it is undeniably beautiful and distinct. I’m always for major filmmakers telling strange and unique stories in their voice.
I’ll leave you with a cinema confession: I haven’t seen Fantastic Mr. Fox. I’m going to use this as an opportunity to fix that.