Isle of Dogs is an Unsentimental Meditation on Loyalty

Seth Montpelier

More stories from Seth Montpelier

Photo Courtesy of Esquire.

Photo Courtesy of Esquire.

It seems that with each film he makes, Wes Anderson, perhaps the most idiosyncratic major filmmaker working today, somehow gets more ambitious. His last film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was a comedy caper set to the background of a fictional Eastern European country slowly falling apart from war. His new film, Isle of Dogs, is even more ambitious: a stop-motion animated sci-fi/comedy feature about a fictional Japanese city led by an authoritarian mayor who banishes all dogs to a distant landfill and his child nephew who goes on a journey to find his dog. This one sounds like Anderson bit off more than he could chew. Well, it’s a great pleasure to inform you that he hasn’t.

Isle of Dogs is a spectacle. Only Wes Anderson could make a place called Trash Island look intricate and fascinating. There are huts made from old sake bottles and inexplicably beautiful abandoned buildings. The city of Megasaki is covered with Anderson’s trademark color schemes, but the majority of the film is hues of gray. The animation is sensational, surpassing even Fantastic Mr. Fox, his previous animated film. It is smooth and easy to get lost in, but there are the occasional gaps in movement, especially in the plastic used to show water. This makes it even better because the subtle layer of artificiality has become an Anderson mainstay, just like the over-obvious special effects in his previous films.

The heart of the film isn’t in the animation, though. It’s in the story, developed by Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura [the voice of the mayor] and written by Anderson. There, of course, is the dry and sly humor, like the various ways Japanese is translated without subtitles or the backstories of all the dogs. But, it’s also moving, without pulling at the heartstrings. The film is really about the beauty of a dog’s unwavering loyalty and the betrayal of when that loyalty’s abused. The dogs all feel discarded and when Atari comes to the island on his ragged airplane, they all, save for the stray Chief, all agree to help. Chief, voiced by the great Bryan Cranston, emerges as the main character, who slowly comes to love Atari.

Those familiar with Anderson’s work know that pets, particularly dogs, don’t always meet a kind fate, to put it mildly. But, for the first time, it is obvious Anderson does not hold a deep hatred for canines. Quite the opposite. He sees them as the most sincere and genuine characters in his world. Their grim fate is not a comment on them, but the self-centeredness and cruelty of the humans they coexist with.

The voice work is sublime, with the main pack trading goofy banter being played by Cranston, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, and Bob Balaban. Other dogs are voiced by Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson, F. Murray Abraham, Harvey Keitel, and Liev Schreiber. Even when we are not told what the humans are saying, the voice actors, Koyu Rankin, Nomura, Akira Ito, Ken Watanabe, and even Yoko Ono, are able to get the message through to us. And of, course, the narration by Courtney B. Vance is perfect in its conviction, always completely serious even when saying ridiculous things.

What is probably most striking is how political the movie is. Anderson has never been known for overt political messages. While The Grand Budapest was about how looming war was the final nail in the coffin of a bygone era, and almost all his other films present clear scenarios of white privilege, it has never been so overt. The film was being developed before the election of Donald Trump, but Anderson himself has admitted that the changing world influenced the story. The film can be seen as a parable of immigration and how a powerful man’s immaturity and vindictiveness can marginalize the struggling. The mayor pedals out fake news, far overstating the severity of the dog flu and snout fever, which got the dog’s banished. And when a scientist finds a cure, the mayor burns the results and the scientist is silenced. Anderson is certainly not an escapist filmmaker, but the political overtones have never been so clear.

Finally, there has been some controversy over the depiction of Japan and whether or not Anderson has made a caricature of it. While there are some valid arguments that state otherwise, it is clear that Anderson’s film is sincere and respectful to Japanese culture. It is a love letter to Japanese cinema, particularly Akira Kurosawa, and it never claims to be a literal portrayal of Japan. Anderson creates worlds in films and he has done it again, this time in Japan. He has a deep admiration for Japanese architecture and tradition, and he doesn’t appear to be reducing it into a lame joke. Anderson has a gift for taking beauty from reality and expanding it in his own fiction. Isle of Dogs is a truly remarkable film, inspiring and elegant, and is a true treat for everyone.

Rating: 4/4