A few miles off the futuristic Japanese city of Megasaki lies the Trash Island. Fear of the dog flu has made the residents discard all the dogs in the city, with no hope left for the canines… until a plane crash-lands a few blocks away from the dogs.
Haikus, heartfelt writing, and meta-perfection make Isle of Dogs a film for the ages.
Throw any storytelling restrictions out the window, and you’ll find animation is a terrific medium to tell your story. Its surreal nature and visually malleable frames end up giving creators a broader scope in the narrative of their movies. Unfortunately, while animation has evolved both technologically and as a device, films aimed at adults aren’t as popular—even today, it’s easier to dismiss animation to be a stylistic device meant only for kids. It’s why movies like Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, or even Hayao Miyazaki’s tragic biopic-romance Kaze tachinu (Eng.: The Wind Rises), aren’t as popular as the equally competent Kung Fu Panda or Toy Story franchises. Here is where Wes Anderson comes in with Isle of Dogs.
[…] viewers get to see everybody’s motives neatly laid out but without the eventual complacency.
Anderson is known for his creation, and absurdist interpretation, of dysfunctional, often wildly objectivist character arcs, and Isle of Dogs is no different. Kobayashi and his straight-outta-Transylvania assistant work toward self-preservation and power, the dogs toward survival, and the kid—Atari, of all names—toward the love for his pet-but-also-guard dog. Like with the much-loved format of anime series, the film is divided into chapters that attempt to form a more omniscient narrative overall and for a good reason. Omniscient storytelling is reasonably tricky; writers and directors usually stumble around, causing a severe disconnect between their creations and their respective audiences.
With Isle of Dogs, however, each perspective makes for a rather compelling argument as to why everyone is the way they are. Every protagonist—and antagonist—has a reason (however silly, but considering the film’s unusual nature, let’s just go with it) for the traits they have. From Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura; The Grand Budapest Hotel, 2014) to foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig; now also a debut director of the outstanding Lady Bird, 2017), viewers get to see everybody’s motives neatly laid out but without the eventual complacency.
No Owen Wilson anywhere? Wow!
Liev Schreiber is Spots in Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs, a Fox Searchlight Pictures, Indian paintbrush and American Empirical Pictures release.
The film’s most tremendous success, however, comes from its somewhat bizarre narrative style—the people from Japan speak fluid Japanese, which, hilariously enough, is sans subtitles. Instead, what Anderson presents its viewers are mostly visual cues combined with the (appropriate) use of professional translators and futuristic electronic devices for crucial moments. Frances McDormand (HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge) as interpreter Nelson is incredible, with her exasperated expressions always betraying the deadpan vocal nature of her English translations. That’s not all, though.
[Wes] Anderson has always envisioned outrageous alternate universes, regardless of the countries he’s based his films in.
Isle of Dogs is self-aware of its use of the tried and tested tropes of non-linear storytelling—the subtle shade its makers throw on flashbacks as a plot device is gold, especially as Anderson and co-writer Jason Schwartzman don’t resort to laziness just because they crack a joke. Of course, there are also some (read: many) incredible meta-nuggets: scientist Watanabe’s assistant Yoko Ono is played by—you guessed it—Yoko Ono, angry-activist Tracy Walker is the sneakiest parody of the white-savior complex in Hollywood, Kobayashi’s conscientious (he’ll hear the voice of dissent before he gets back to the metaphorical mustache-twirl) antagonist, and the title in itself—a camouflaged pun that’s as masterful as it is cheeky.
An argument can be made against Isle of Dogs and its appropriation of Japanese culture. But here’s a counterpoint: Anderson has always envisioned outrageous alternate universes, regardless of the countries he’s based his films in, or which have inspired him. From Rushmore‘s exasperatingly obnoxious frenemy duo to The Darjeeling Limited‘s fascinating clueless-white-people-in-India commentary, the maverick director’s trademark is to turn even the most tried-and-tested indie formulas—three dysfunctional brothers stuck with each other, for example, could fit right in with your everyday Sundance aspirant—into a surreal, almost otherworldly adventure. Now, his meta counterculture commentaries may not be everybody’s cuppa joe, but you’ll never know if you didn’t watch the movie at all, now, will you?
Isle of Dogs will have its share of detractors for reasons good enough to warrant a discussion. Squint your eyes and read between the lines, however, and you’ll be in for a roller-coaster ride of haikus, hearty humor, and many good boys. This one’s a winner alright—but knowing Wes Anderson’s track record, that doesn’t come off as surprising at all. Highly recommended.