Isle of Dogs

“I wish somebody spoke his language.”

The country is such a dumpster fire right now; it has even broken Wes Anderson, a man who secretes whimsy and innocence. I’m sure someone whose much smarter than me has made this point already, but after going through and re-watching every Wes Anderson film in order, you suddenly realize Anderson’s increasingly fantastical storytelling coincides with reality slowly losing its mind. As our world descends further and further into madness, Anderson descends further and further into his own fantasy worlds. When I wrote about The Darjeeling Limited, I expressed my distaste for the film by saying, “…[the film] feels like Wes Anderson at a crossroads, unsure of where to go.” Now, I don’t want to give myself too much of a pat on the back, but I think I was onto something. Wes Anderson reached that crossroads, took a look around at the scenery and decided to double down on his own aesthetic. As his career has progressed, his settings have gotten more and more idyllic and dreamlike, each more lovingly crafted than the last. Moonrise Kingdom takes place in 1960’s New Penzance, a fictional New England island community threatened by an incoming violent storm. The Grand Budapest Hotel takes place in 1930’s Zubrowska, a fictional European territory threatened by the rise of fascism and the start of World War II. It’s almost as if Wes Anderson wants to take a time machine to places in eras he wishes he lived in right before things inevitably turn sour. Isle of Dogs, his newest film, takes place twenty years in the future in a Japan being threatened by government conspiracies, the dissemination of propaganda and anti-science and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Basically, it’s Wes Anderson’s attempt at a response to the Trump Administration.

We’re in the fictional Megasaki, Japan, set twenty years into the future. An outbreak of snout fever has infected dogs all across the country, causing cat loving Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) to sign an executive order banishing all dogs to Trash Island, a quarantined piece of land that is, you guessed it, a trash dump. Spots (Liev Schrieber), the personal bodyguard of the mayor’s nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin), is the first dog sent there. Atari flies and inevitably crashes his plane on Trash Island, where he comes into contact with a pack of five alpha dogs: Chief (Bryan Cranston), a violent stray and de facto leader of the pack; Rex (Edward Norton), the rational good cop to Chief’s irrational bad cop; Boss (Bill Murray), the happy-go-lucky former mascot of a Japanese little league team; Duke (Jeff Goldblum), the gossip hound of the group; and King (Bob Balaban), a timid dog who just wants everyone to get along. Despite Chief’s reluctance, the five dogs join Atari on a journey to find Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) and Oracle (Tilda Swinton), the two wisest dogs on the island, hoping they’ll be able to reveal Spot’s whereabouts. Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, Kobayashi sends a rescue team after Atari. While Atari and the dogs are being tracked by Kobayashi’s forces, Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito), the head of the Science Party, and his assistant, Yoko Ono (Yoko Ono), are busy developing a cure for the canine flu. When they successfully discover a cure, it is brought to Kobayashi, who immediately dismisses it. When Watanabe is poisoned by lethal wasabi, American exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) uncovers a government conspiracy and seeks to overthrow the government before it is too late.

Isle of Dogs wants to be about the emotional relationship we have with our dogs. We live in a world where you can’t go anywhere online without somebody posting pictures of their dogs and commenting on how cute other people’s dog pictures are. Dogs have the highest approval rating of anything that walks the Earth. They are our most valued possession and we treat them as such. It’s really odd seeing a Wes Anderson film championing dogs because, in previous films, Anderson has had no issues showing dogs being harmed and sometimes innocently killed because of his characters’ recklessness. In The Royal Tenenbaums, a dog is hit by a car driven by a crazed friend of the family. In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a three legged dog left behind by pirates is met with disdain by Zissou who shows no interest in taking care of it. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, guard beagles are roofied so the foxes can steal chickens from local farmers. In Moonrise Kingdom, a terrier is killed by an arrow and is given an unsentimental eulogy. In Isle of Dogs, Anderson wants to make up for his past “sins” by lovingly portraying dogs as we see them, but given Anderson’s canine track record, we aren’t even sure if he truly cares about them. If he doesn’t really care about the dogs, why should we?

Surprisingly, Isle of Dogs is Anderson at his most political, a key contributor to Anderson’s disinterest in his dog characters. His Japan is a country being ruled by Mayor Kobayashi, a cruel man who wants to rid the country of all dogs simply because they, through no fault of their own, contracted a manufactured virus perpetrated by the government. We know he’s evil because he is a cat person who hates dogs and all monsters are typically cat people who hate dogs. Every speech he gives involves anti-dog propaganda designed to keep the country in fear of this canine menace. His closest confidante, Major-Domo (Akira Takayama) is the gangly Stephen Miller to Kobayashi’s boisterous Trump, constantly in his ear about portraying dogs as anti-pet and a negative influence on the country. In a flashback, Major-Domo presents Spots to Atari and freaks out when Atari treats Spots as a pet instead of the personal bodyguard he’s supposed to be. In this Japan, dogs are treated like unruly immigrants, only acceptable in the government’s eyes as long as they can provide a service. When they are in danger of infecting the population, they are seen as toxic and are deported to a land deemed most suitable for them: the toxic wasteland known as Trash Island. In a rather silly, problematic subplot, Anderson even attempts to illustrate the effect high quality investigative journalism has during times of rampant government corruption by casting a young American foreign exchange student as this film’s Carl Bernstein. His Tracy Walker is an outsider, interviewing leads, investigating murders and uncovering government conspiracies all while attending class and professing her love for Atari, a boy who has presumably just entered puberty. In Isle of Dogs, it turns out the only person who can free Megasaki from political turmoil is the film’s only white person.

Fantastic Mr. Fox was Wes Anderson’s first journey into stop motion animation. The format continues to be an ideal way for Anderson to fully show off his fantastical aesthetic and Isle of Dogs takes his aesthetic to the next level. His retro futuristic Megasaki is probably the most detailed environment he’s constructed, a remarkable achievement given how wondrously dense The Grand Budapest Hotel is. You can see the dedication in every frame. Leading up to the release of Isle of Dogs, I remember reading an article, in which a secretive Anderson revealed the film wasn’t necessarily an homage to stop motion animation, but was a direct homage to the films of Akira Kurosawa. With that in mind, I couldn’t help but wonder what on earth was Anderson talking about. Is it influenced by Kurosawa because it is set in Japan? Is it influenced by Kurosawa because of stray dogs? Everyone pays their respects to Kurosawa in some way, shape or form. George Lucas remade The Hidden Fortress and called it Star Wars. Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola helped fund the making of Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. Martin Scorsese played Van Gogh in a short in Kurosawa’s Dreams and cited the films of Kurosawa as an inspiration in crafting the look of his most recent film, Silence. A lot of people owe a lot to Akira Kurosawa and act accordingly. Despite Wes Anderson adamantly saying so, Isle of Dogs doesn’t really feel influenced by Akira Kurosawa. It feels like Wes Anderson rewatched every Kurosawa Criterion he owns and decided he wanted to make a film showing off what he enjoys about Japanese culture. In fact, I don’t even know why this film needed to take place in Japan. You could tell this story in any other English speaking world. Because it is set in Japan, Anderson has to come up with contrived ways to inject English into the film, abandoning subtitles in favor of voiceover narration and interpreters. It’s just messy storytelling. Japan doesn’t really feel apart of the film. The only reason Isle of Dogs takes place in Japan is because Anderson thought it’d be cool if it did.

All in all, the film is a rare misfire from Anderson; the result of a director biting off more than he can chew.

Grade: C+

Final Wes Anderson Rankings

  1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  2. Rushmore
  3. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
  4. The Royal Tenenbaums
  5. Fantastic Mr. Fox
  6. Moonrise Kingdom
  7. Bottle Rocket
  8. Isle of Dogs
  9. The Darjeeling Limited