Isle of Dogs is Typical Wes Anderson Fare

Isle of Dogs (2018)
Directed by Wes Anderson
Fox Searchlight, 99 minutes, PG-13.

I have a love/meh relationship with Wes Anderson. Most of his work reminds me of a brilliant slacker student, the kind who should be getting straight A’s but is content to do just enough to get a B or B- and go home. There is always something about an Anderson film that dazzles me, but also things that make me roll my eyes.

Isle of Dogs marks Anderson’s return to animation, turf he first explored in his 2009 film Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is, in my estimation, a stronger film—perhaps because the Roald Dahl story upon which it's based has built-in edginess that Anderson couldn’t turn into detached irony. Anderson co wrote the script for Isle of Dogs and has claimed Kurosawa as an inspiration, though the visual style owes more to Japanese anime and the doll-like cartooning in films such as Despicable Me.

The story is fairly straightforward. A future virus has infected Japan’s dog population with bad cases of the sniffles, mange, and other symptoms that Megasaki City Mayor Kobayashi claims will touch off an influenza pandemic among humans. To head it—or maybe he’s just a mean guy—the mayor decrees that his city will rid itself of all dogs, both feral and domestic. All are rounded up and shipped via automated cable dumpsters across the water to Trash Island. Various packs form, each fending for themselves. The conditions, however, are filthy and the dogs must forage amidst the daily trash deliveries to survive. Mayor Kobayashi is so masterful at propaganda that his actions are interpreted as having saved the city’s human population. Will no one remember his or her canine companion?

The mayor’s orphaned nephew and ward Atari will. He commandeers a plane and crash-lands on the island. He is determined to find his Bluetooth-enabled helper dog Spots and expose his uncle’s perfidy. This touches off a search for Atari, an attempt to hide successful eradication of the dog flu, and a race against the clock to ensure the mayor’s reelection so he can enact his plan to exterminate all dogs. Enter also an American exchange student, Tracy Walker (voiced by Greta Gerwig), who marshals a team of hackers and young people to expose the mayor’s corruption, remind everyone how much they used to love dogs, and prevent the holocaust of howlers.

Along the way we are taken inside anthropomorphic dog packs, especially one headed by Chief (Bryan Cranston sounding like George Clooney), a particularly scraggly mutt, a biter, and a former stray. He and his pack mates will be Atari’s guide across Trash Island and his intermediaries in encounters with other dog populations. Each dog pretty much takes on the personality of those who voice said pooch, a cast that includes F. Murray Abraham, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Angelica Huston, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Liev Schreiber, and Tilda Swinton. Stil other celebrities lend their voices to humanized cartoon characters, including Frances McDormand, Courtney Vance, and Yoko Ono.

It’s all very cute and the dialogue is frequently witty, spirited, and snapped from the snarky end of the dog biscuit. There are also clever throwaway details. Check out the garbage contents; notice that there is usually a cat prominent when nastiness is afoot. You might also see similarities between some of Mayor Kobayashi’s rallies and scenes from Citizen Kane. There are winks and nods to 1950s Japanese sci-fi sprinkled throughout.  

The border between homage and appropriation is often a thin one, however. It’s hard not to observe that Trash Island looks a lot like the garbage-filled Earth from Pixar’s WALL-E, and some of the machines and other mechanical paraphernalia look familiar as well. It’s also pretty obvious that the story of kids, tweens, and teens saving the day is straight out of ‘toons such as Daria, Dexter, and Scooby-Doo. The animation style of Tracy Walker and others—barrel bodies with impossibly thin legs—is pretty much what we’ve seen in Despicable Me. Tracy is hard for me to take on several levels. First, her round face, freckles, oddly shaped torso, and red Afro strikes me as grotesque. Mostly, though, I wondered why we needed an American girl to do what a Japanese character could have done. Is this just conservative filmmaking—something plugged in to make sure Americans won't view it as a “foreign” film—or backdoor Great White Hope paternalism?

Perhaps you think I nitpick. I actually liked the film; I just didn't love it. I thought it half clever, but as always, Wes Anderson did just enough to collect his B. The last time he actually got an A was 1998, when he made Rushmore. It was offbeat, original, and lovable. Isle of Dogs is a bit like Chief; it wags its tail but the bite does not match the bark.

Rob Weir


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