by Philip Price
“Isle of Dogs” is the ninth feature film from director Wes Anderson and by this point, one knows prior to going into an Anderson film both what they will be getting and whether they're already in the bag for Anderson's style and how he will undoubtedly expand upon it. I was very much in the bag for the auteur's return to stop-motion animation after the delightful excursion that was 2009's “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” And so, the question then surpasses that of expectation dictating the perceived outcome of a certain film, but rather to be that of if there is already this acceptance of quality due to the understanding of the passion, time, and care committed to a project then just how good is it exactly? Where does it rank among the director's already impressive catalogue? As the credits rolled on the brief feeling, but wholly satisfying “Isle of Dogs” it became infinitely clearer than it had a moment earlier when still during the film that while this may be Anderson's most outright imaginative take on a motion picture it is also the one that is most vague regarding its intentions. Maybe memories of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” escape me or maybe I missed a thesis that “Isle of Dogs” states throughout its rather straightforward narrative, but what seems most likely is the fact Anderson intended this to be as simple as it could possibly be so that individual movie-goers might make of it as they please with the filmmaker himself only taking credit to the extent the experience of watching his film brought excesses of escapism and joy. There isn't a single aspect of that previous sentence I would disagree with in terms of how easy it is to be swept up in the world of “Isle of Dogs” and how effortlessly enjoyable the movie is, but there is no sense of real emotional investment to be conjured either. It's not a mandate that Anderson's films be emotionally involving which is to say the meaning of his movies rarely take center stage, but often it's hard to avoid such because of the natural investment made in the compelling characters. In “Isle of Dogs” we have a pack of abandoned canines and a twelve year-old boy who doesn't speak English whom Anderson gives no subtitles and thus there is something of a disconnect, but despite these small quibbles (and trust me, that's all they really are) “Isle of Dogs” is a meticulously crafted, beautifully rendered, and pitch perfect Wes Anderson movie that positions the water cooler conversations to not be about what the film is discussing, but what the film is; not what it says, but how it makes you feel.
“Isle of Dogs” begins with a quick prologue explaining the legend of a war between three clans; two of which worshiped dogs while the Kobayashi clan were cat lovers. The clans fought in battle until a child warrior came forth and decapitated the head of the Kobayashi clan. Centuries later, the Kobayashi family has not forgiven their greatest defeat. Jumping forward to a world in the not too distant future the Kobayashi clan now sits atop the societal ladder given one of their namesake's reigns as Mayor of the Japanese city of Megasaki. In what is described as an outbreak of "snout fever" Mayor Kobayashi issues a decree that will send every dog in the land to a quarantined piece of land they call Trash Island. There are those that oppose this decision in Megasaki namely Professor Watanabe (voice of Akira Ito) and his assistant scientist (voice of Yoko Ono) who believe the dogs can be cured with a serum they are producing and need to test. When put to a vote though, Kobayashi wins his way and to show no bias and make an example of what must be done he elects to make the first dog to be banished that of his own nephew's. That nephew, Atari (voice of Koyu Rankin), could not be more at odds with his "distant uncle" who designated his dog, Spots (voice of Liev Schrieber), to be his bodyguard when he came to live with them after the death of his parents. Naturally, this is all communicated through a flashback where it is clearly stated on screen that this is in fact a flashback-a trademark of Anderson's dry wit and off kilter if not still perfectly symmetrical style. It's also clearly stated that "all barks have been rendered into English" in case anyone was concerned.
This prologue of sorts brings the audience up to speed on the necessary backstory as the movie truly doesn't dig into itself until the movie itself joins the packs of ill-ridden dogs on Trash Island. It is here viewers meet a crew led by the only former stray of the pack in Chief (voice of Bryan Cranston) along with the bossy Rex (voice of Edward Norton), the funny Boss (Bill Murray), the ironically quiet King (Bob Balaban), and the gossipmonger that is Duke (Jeff Goldblum). It is shortly after meeting this gang of dirty, starving, and likely crazed dogs (not so much from the sickness, but from the isolation and lack of resources) that Atari, who the dogs affectionately refer to as "the little pilot" comes crashing down onto Trash Island in a stolen airplane with hopes of locating Spots. This is some six months or so after all the dogs have been banished leaving only a slight hope in Atari that he might find his pet, but after immediately enlisting the help of Chief and his pack it seems we are safely snuggled in for what will be a rescue mission of a movie. Anderson (who has sole screenwriting credit) quickly upends that expectation though, taking his audience down a winding road that, while not necessarily unconventional, is never where you quite expect it to go. That isn't to say “Isle of Dogs” doesn't have its problems. There is a subplot with the Greta Gerwig-voiced character, Tracy, who feels somewhat unnecessary and only present to serve to clarify the events and actions of Kobayashi as well as what happens to Watanabe, but Anderson typically gives the viewer more credit than this and as much could be deduced without the aid of Tracy’s investigatory journalism. It's a weird choice and, if it weren't for time and preparation necessary, would feel tacked on to provide Gerwig a role. Gerwig deserves to be in a Wes Anderson film, but she deserves more than this.
Of course, what makes any Anderson film as delightful as they always are is that attention to detail and level of care the director takes in crafting them and “Isle of Dogs” is no different. In fact, it could be argued that in his stop-motion excursions Anderson is more focused on the details as they take that much more time to develop and consider. This is true in both the execution of the story through the images, but also regarding the writing. It's almost a given that Anderson's films will be visually mind-blowing in their meticulousness. For example, the set design in the laboratories of those searching for a cure for the dog flu with their color-coded beakers, flasks, and test tubes serving as a backdrop is entrancing without being distracting. It is easy to glean in many a scene just how magnificently and expertly Anderson will bring this world he has imagined to life, but it is what he is able to do with these techniques and how he is able to consistently keep what is undoubtedly tiring and tedious work from ever feeling like this way that is most impressive. “Isle of Dogs” is in fact the opposite of such descriptors as it is consistently hilarious and effortlessly charming with much of these qualities coming from the details Anderson bothers to include and what eventually come to form the basis of what makes what is, in all honesty, a rather slight story as memorable as it is. These details range from being as broad as making Chief's crew what is essentially a group of old ladies who gossip and hang out together because they have nothing else to do and becoming a comedy of errors in the process (see the trash compactor sequence and its resolution). This broad concept is boiled down into something more memorable and precise by Anderson not always through folly, but through the precision of knowing his movie inside and out.
There is a running gag within Chief's gang that is always exacted by Norton's domineering Rex that works both as a way to exemplify Rex's imperiousness, a way to gauge where each of the other dogs land in regards to their attitudes, but it also sets up such a perfect joke that will only garner the laughs it deserves if the viewer has been paying close enough attention to understand why it is as funny as it actually is. Otherwise, it will sound like little more than a common phrase being used correctly. That is the power of Anderson's writing in that it has layers and often requires multiple watches for even the surface to be scratched. In this regard, it is already an intriguing thought to want to re-visit “Isle of Dogs” to see how bit parts from people like F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, and Frances McDormand, who each provide voices for these overseer-type figures to the dog and human worlds, respectively, play more validated roles after repeat viewings. Additionally, small added moments of one dog picking a tick off another dog mid-conversation, the eyes of the characters-especially when they begin to swell before beginning to cry-are so visceral, and the character design of the aboriginal dogs that have fallen victim to harsh experimentation are only a few examples of clever and striking details that, when set to the 1966 tune, "I Won't Hurt You" by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band only resonate all the more deeply. The way Anderson devises for Spots to disband a gang of robot dogs as well as how every scuffle is depicted as large clouds of dust and commotion aren't bad examples of the creativity on display here either.
Like his aesthetic, Anderson imagines a world in which everything is clean cut and in its proper place. Things are simplified. They are cut and dry. There is no room for questions. No time to wait on pondering. It's funny this is the way Anderson constructs his worlds and how starkly they contrast the feelings around the film after experiencing it. Whether the deluge of possible themes and meanings is a guttural reaction to how logical and steady the decisions that are made in his movies are and thus define the decisions made about his movies is certainly something work with exploring, but again...layers. There is a line near the end of the film that goes, “Wow, that’s a great serum!” and it again perfectly encapsulates Anderson’s clean-cut dealings in things. Just do it. Just do what you’re supposed to do, and things will become as they should and are meant to be. This inevitably leads to the question then of what “Isle of Dogs” is about? What is all of this in service of? What is it aiming to say, if anything? There is always the distinct possibility Anderson is creating simply for the sake of imagination and a fun/interesting experiment in and of itself, but even in only aiming to do just this one typically latches onto an idea or theme that comes to be representative of the journey. With “Isle of Dogs,” and as stated previously, it seems this has been left intentionally vague for reasons of taking what one wants from it, taking it how the viewer reacts instinctively to it, or simply enjoying it for its many surface-level pleasures. “Isle of Dogs” could simply be a call for compassion in this crazy world, or it could be about the inherent role dogs play/assume in human lives. This idea of how they are referred to as man's best friend and dedicate their lives to their owners (even after being abandoned, Chief's pack talk about their former owners with genuine affection) and how, when they need us most, man abruptly abandons them. At the halfway point of the film, Chief and Atari are separated from the rest of the dogs, offering Chief the opportunity to better figure out who he is regarding having a human owner and even in this strand of a plot detail one could take some meaning dealing in this kind of dynamic. There is also a point in the film where Atari makes the apt comparison between himself and his canine companion, thanking his tyrannical uncle for taking him in when he was a stray. Could “Isle of Dogs” be a metaphor for adoption and how society largely tries to push the issue under the rug instead of better dealing with it? Many interpretations can be pulled from the film depending on how deep one is willing to dive, but the best part is that no matter what level an individual is looking to experience an Anderson film on, they work; and there is the gut feeling that rule applies to this one especially.