Isle of Dogs is About More Than Four-Legged Friends

Isle of Dogs Still

The style and substance of Wes Anderson’s work is well established at this point. His films are colorful and symmetrical, each frame packed edge to edge with a reverential graphic aesthetic, a design language built atop modernist furnishings and drapery; he works with a revolving murderer’s row of comic powerhouses, his own little repertory of collaborators; and there will always be a great adventure, one where dangers abound and the wounds will cut just deep enough.

Yes, Isle of Dogs, which had its North American premiere this past weekend at SXSW, fits unmistakably in the Anderson canon; if you like his films you’ll continue to do so here. What is surprising, though, is that built atop the recognizable aesthetic is something I did not expect to find: a political message. In this sense, though perhaps not the most satisfying of Anderson’s work, the film may be his most exciting. Watching a filmmaker build on everything he knows and then step out of that comfort zone to say more than you may have expected provides a unique thrill.

The film takes place in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki. It is ruled with an iron fist by a plutocratic, cat-loving mayor, Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura, who also co-wrote the film’s story with Anderson, Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola), who whips the citizens into a frenzy over an outbreak of dog flu. Ignoring his opponents, doctors representing the Science Party, he banishes all dogs to Trash Island, a literal dump that has been polluted by various Kobayashi enterprises. We learn later that the mayor’s plotting has more to do with enriching himself than any ideological bent.

On Trash Island, we meet Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray) and King (Bob Balaban), a pack of dogs that roam the refuse, searching for food scraps, longing for a purpose. Adventure presents itself when a young pilot, Atari (Koyu Rankin), crash lands on the isle, looking for his lost dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). The pups are (mostly) game to help the young boy find his dog.

While most of Megasaki’s residents seem to have made peace with the expulsion of the dogs, there is a resistance movement afoot, led by a young foreign exchange student, Tracy (Greta Gerwig). Working for her school newspaper, she pulls at the thread of corruption that has led to the mass dog deportation. Tracy’s journalism quickly morphs into activism once she sees that adults around her have grown complacent. She springs into action, leading up to what has now become a classic Anderson fireworks display of a climax.

Politics has become, perhaps irrevocably, a dominant aspect of American daily life. It is fashionable to know the ever-growing cast of characters in the world of the political; opinions, however ill-informed, have become the coin of the realm. Personally, I am so inundated by news that I can’t tell if I’m merely impressing my own mental state, one awash in names and details and tick-tock reportage, upon this filn. I don’t think so, though. Isle of Dogs feels like a warning of where authoritarianism leads (and how to fight it).1

While many evils are timeless and make for great cinema, Kobayashi feels like a unique villain for our era. Take your pick of kleptocrat, at home or abroad, and you’ll begin to see the similarities. He is made all the more difficult to defeat by the fact that he rose to power not despite the will of the people, but because of it. Only the children of Megasaki have the fortitude to stand up to such a foe. Such may be the case in real life as well.

As I’ve mentioned, the Anderson hallmarks are all there. The film’s plot burns nice and slow as we learn more about what makes each character (and there are many!) tick. Everything occurs in its rightful order, which is to say not always chronologically, for the biggest emotional impact. The result is a film sprinkled with perfectly executed moments of laughter, cheers and tears. It’s an all ages2 escapade that will leave you with plenty to talk about when the lights come up.

Wes Anderson’s filmmaking journey is certainly never dull. One can always rely on him for a visual feast set to musical deep cuts (there’s plenty of vinyl, as well as what sounds like a new, or at least less heard, rendition of Sergei Prokofiev’s first film score) with moments of raw emotional revelation. That palette has become so second nature to the director, he can now imbue his stories with vital and current considerations. That may be the most impressive aspect of this latest outing. I, for one, am excited to see where he goes next.

  1. One can also discern a message of protecting the planet, though, weirdly, for a film set on a place called Trash Island, that seems to be somewhat secondary. ↩︎

  2. Perhaps now is a good place to mention that the film is not entirely in English. Every character speaks his or her native tongue, which means most humans speak Japanese. One should trust Mr. Anderson on this: English speakers will not be in the dark. There are no subtitles, but everything is made clear through some form of translation. Younger viewers, I would guess, likely won’t even notice the film feels foreign to any degree. ↩︎