I love Wes Anderson movies. They’re the epitome of quirky American cinema, but there’s a lot of heart in those stories and some pretty clever cinematography at work, as is Anderson’s style. When you see a lot of yellow? That’s Wes. When you see a whole dialogue within an extremely symmetrical scene? That’s Wes. When you track an impressive line of characters moving horizontally across the screen? Yep, that, too, is Wes.
I adored The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. I fell for Moonrise Kingdom. And now I’m pleased to watch the director’s latest project, Isle of Dogs.
In the near-future, the Japanese city of Megasaki has seen an outbreak of dog flu, and Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) has decreed all dogs be banned and sent to Trash Island. He faces public opposition from Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito), who seeks a cure for the virus, as well as opposition at home from his nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin), who will do anything to find his beloved dog Spots (Liev Schrieber). Meanwhile, on the island itself, a pack of four dogs (voiced by Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Bob Balaban) come across Atari after he crashes his plane into the island, as well as a stray dog named Chief (Bryan Cranston). As the clock ticks down to the Mayor’s final plot to eliminate all dogs from the area, Chief leads his newfound pack to help the boy find Spots and get word back to the mainland about their plight.
As dramatic as the above synopsis sounds, the story’s pretty simple. A pack of dogs and one determined 12-year-old take on the Mayor’s oppressive regime. Even so, for something that seems goofy, the spirit is definitely heartwarming. Anyone who’s even been a dog owner will get half the jokes. There’s also a nice recurring motif and exploration of the line, “Whatever happened to man’s best friend?” Isle of Dogs spends as much time making fun of the way we treat dogs as it does exploring how dogs and people view each other. Loyalty’s a huge theme here, and it shows on both sides of the conflict.
The casting for this film is excellent. I mean, you’ll get exhausted just trying to keep track of who’s who in this movie. So I’ll just keep it simple and say that Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeff Goldblum are ideal for the dogs they voice. Greta Gerwig blends in well with her sharp, uber-serious diction as Tracy Walker, the lone English-speaking student in a Megasaki City high school. Also, the Japanese voice acting blends in well with the English voice cast. Much credit is due to Kunichi Nomura, who helped Anderson develop the story and how brings both pathos and power to the role of the cruel Mayor.
The stop-motion animation is breathtaking, with so much detail poured into the way dog fur moves and the subtle changes of human expression on characters like Atari and Tracy Walker. I’ll admit that, at this time, I haven’t seen Fantastic Mr. Fox yet, so I can’t say how it compares, but I imagine it’s on par.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that I, in fact, am not of Japanese descent. Therefore, I can’t really claim to be a credible witness about cultural appropriation with this movie. This is, after all, a film written and directed by Wes Anderson. But even so, given his collaboration with Mr. Nomura and the amount of work that went into representing all the details of modern Japanese life in stop-motion, there is a certain syncretic spirit within the plot. English-speaking characters like Tracy aren’t made superior to native Japanese like Atari, and even her place in Japan as an exchange student gets commented on at various points. The dogs also speak in an English vernacular, but they highlight that life as a housepet in Japan wouldn’t be all that different from the life of a pet in America or Europe.
But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps I’m not giving cultural appropriation its due. I can only say this much: go see the movie. Whether you love Wes Anderson or you just love seeing dogs in action, consider going to see Isle of Dogs. For all its quirks and commentary, at the end of the day, it’s still a pretty heartwarming story for all ages. It’s an offbeat, funny, farcical romp with a dramatic core that never lets up.
Isle of Dogs is available through Fox Searchlight Pictures. It is currently playing in theaters.
Bibliography: Isle of Dogs. Directed by Wes Anderson. Produced by Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, and Jeremy Dawson. Screenplay by Wes Anderson. Story by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura. Perf. Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Kunichi Nomura, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Harvey Keitel, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Akira Ito, Akira Takayama, F. Murray Abraham, Yojiro Noda, Mari Natsuki, Yoko Ono, and Frank Wood. Indian Paintbrush; American Empirical Pictures. Fox Searchlight Pictures. US release date: March 23, 2018.