Written and Directed by: Wes Anderson
A 12-year old boy (Koyu Rankin) with superficial resemblance to Le Petit Prince crash lands on an island of trash. He meets a team of stray dogs classically named King (Bob Babalan), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), Rex (Edward Norton) and Chief (Bryan Cranston). Four of the dogs eagerly assist the teary-eyed boy on a quest to find his own dog, Spots (Liev Schrieber). Chief, by contrast, is reserved, but we can foresee that he has a soft exterior. What I have just described probably sounds like a children’s movie.
Except, early in this “children’s movie” a dog’s ear is ripped off, and we see it in its bloody glory (violence against dogs is a recurring motif of Wes Anderson’s: needless to say there’s a beautiful, dark irony to referencing the subject into this film). We also learn that the dogs on his trash island are exiles, deported by dictatorial, strong-willed Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), victims of (albeit cartoonish) harsh, populist bigotry. Finally, we are given strong reason to believe that the boy, Atari’s, dog Spots is no longer alive. Suddenly, this film no longer sounds like a children’s movie.
This is an issue Wes Anderson acknowledged at a Q&A, saying it was a question he and his team grappled with in the plot development process: they considered that their film would be quite disturbing for children. Anderson and the audience, however, questioned the dichotomy of thinking of films as being for children or adults, noting the role of anime in Japan. While an audience member pointed out that in America animation is either Frozen or South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut anime films appeal to a spectrum of audiences, and even (eg Spirited Away) straddle the children’s-adult line in uncomfortable ways akin to Isle of Dogs.
While anime was perhaps an influence on Isle of Dogs (Anderson cited his interested in Japanese filmmakers like Miyazaki as the reason for his setting Isle of Dogs in Japan), there is something distinct about Anderson’s approach to not-for-kids animation. As a filmmaker coming from the American context, and as someone whose last animated feature was a Roald Dahl adaptation, Anderson’s decision to make his film not exactly kid-friendly has a (somewhat) shocking affect. Anderson is aware of this tonal quality of his work, and thus doesn’t miss an opportunity to be playfully shocking. A recurring motif in the film is dogs getting into fights. These scraps are covered up by cartoon dust clouds. On the one hand Anderson is depicting his cute doggie characters as fighting, thus disrupting the illusion of his movie being for kids. On the flip side, he covers up the fights with a Looney Tunes style visual-aid, disrupting his adult-darkness.
Isle of Dogs can thus be said to have a distinct aesthetic: a little bit cute, a little bit scrappy, much like its stray protagonists. This aesthetic juxtaposes nicely with Anderson’s established practice of depicting quirkily colourful, yet meticulously organized backgrounds. One of the film’s iconic scenes features the dogs examining a bag of “food,” which is in fact a maggot covered collection of scraps. The food items are meticulously lined up in the bag, and are named one-by-one, complete with adjectives, by one of the dogs. This makes them beautiful, even as, from multiple sensual perspectives they are thoroughly unappealing to human and dog-stomachs alike.
Plot wise, Isle of Dogs is a bit simple, which is not necessarily a bad thing given the film’s pseudo-children’s-movie styling. While it opens beautifully with reference to a heroic young warrior standing up to ancestors of Mayor Kobayashi who wanted to wipe out Japan’s dogs, this legend is never revisited over the course of the script. Mayor Kobayashi’s own anti-dog policies are portrayed “as corruption,” rather than part of a deranged, multi-generational ideology. The uneven depiction of the mayor may have several explanations. Perhaps, like The Shape of Water, Isle of Dogs wants to reference oppressive politics, without muddling its script in the details ideology. Perhaps Anderson wanted to make vague anti-Trump illusions (Kobayashi is not only an anti-dog bigot, but his political opposition comes from “The Science Party” (perhaps reference to Trump and his party’s persistent climate change denial)), while still making his film enjoyable to audiences of all political persuasions.
One might also assume that since Anderson is an aesthetic-driven filmmaker, he saw Kobayashi not so much as a depiction of real world politicians, but as a politician-doll in the elaborate dollhouse of his movie. This third argument makes sense when one considers some of the more effective parts of Kobayashi’s portrayal. For example. there is one scene where the members of Kobayashi’s administration are introduced one by one, as he meticulously explains his devious anti-dog plot. This scene is comedic rather than sinister as it comes across as a gleeful imagining of what cartoon, corrupt politicians could look like, rather than a realistic depiction of an evil scheme. Another example of Kobayashi being a mere “dollhouse villain” comes when a dynamic speech of his is interrupted by an electric sign announcing that it is time for the opposition party to respond to offer a rebuttal. While the opposition (Science Party) is clearly not given a meaningful chance to challenge Kobayashi’s rule, that is given this tokenistic avenue to interrupt Kobayashi is a credit to Anderson’s imagination of the absurd nuances that could exist in a futuristic, oppressive polity.
In all, Isle of Dogs is a visually masterful effort, particularly as it makes use of its multiple genres of animation. Like its predecessor, The Grand Budapest Hotel, it can also be seen as a successful combination of established Andersonian visual techniques with broadly-appealing comedy. It is dark and playful and as such should capture the imaginations of a broad range of viewers from those who appreciate the unmistakably Andersonian tone of Nutmeg the reluctant-show-dog (Scarlett Johansson), to those who simply appreciate a good Yoko Ono cameo.
Note: Isle of Dogs was recently subject to some scrutiny in regards to the question of cultural appropriation. I will be following up with some views on that topic in a separate piece.