On the one hand, Isle of Dogs is exactly the movie you would expect from writer-director Wes Anderson. It features his signature blend of erudite childhood, perfect visual symmetry, deadpan comic delivery, and the evolution of the stunning stop-motion animation we saw in Fantastic Mr. Fox. But on the other hand, it’s clear that in his later movies, Anderson is getting more political. While his previous movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was a melancholy meditation against authoritarianism and global catastrophe, Isle of Dogs has a sharper focus on the limits of democracy, the power of rumor and innuendo, and tribalism. It doesn’t all come together, but it’s hard to be upset when you’ve got very good dogs leading the picture.
Following a prologue where we’re told of a boy samurai defeating the forces of Kobayashi, who wanted to get rid of all the dogs, we come to 20 years in the future where the dogs are once again in trouble. Kobayashi’s descendant, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), has ordered all dogs shipped to Trash Island off the coast of Megasaki City to prevent a current dog-related illness from mutating into a human-borne illness. However, Kobayashi’s motives seem less-than-altruistic, which leads his adopted nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin) to go to the island to look for his lost dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). There, he comes across a pack of alpha dogs—Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray, and four domesticated dogs, Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and King (Bob Balaban). Although they don’t speak his language, they agree to try and help Atari find Spots. Meanwhile, back on the mainland, a group of students led by American transfer student Tracy (Greta Gerwig) tries to fight back against Kobayashi’s order and for the science candidate, Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito).
On the surface, Isle of Dogs is a lovely “a dog and his boy” story that immediately charms the audience with Anderson’s approach. If you haven’t been a fan of Anderson’s movies to this point, Isle of Dogs isn’t going to change your opinion of the director, but his fans will feel immediately welcome in the world he and his team have whipped up here. Both Megasaki City and Trash Island are wonders to behold in their own way, and at times it feels like you’re watching a kid play with the world’s most expensive playset. Like his past work, Anderson almost seems to over-emphasize the artifice of what he’s doing, which counter-intuitively makes the emotional impact more immediate.
Where Anderson pulls a neat little trick with the audience is making you think that it’s a story about the pack when really it’s a story about Chief. Chief is the outsider who doesn’t like humans, but the other four domesticated dogs, led by Rex, try to impose order on chaos. They constantly put things up for a vote and heed the latest rumor from Duke no matter how spurious. Chief is on the edge, not really wanting to help Atari, but also not wanting to abandon his pack. It’s a rich, rewarding story as we see an outsider who could be made whole with love, but at the same time, as he says more than once, “I bite.”
In this way, Chief kind of represents “the other”, an outsider among outsiders, but also a mix of positive and negative qualities. While Isle of Dogs was in the works before our current presidency, it’s hard to look at the film and not see a parable about immigration, or just other-ing in general. The film acknowledges that not every single person from an outside group is a saint, but more importantly, they’re a person (it’s Anderson’s wry sense of humor that he chooses to represent this conflicted humanity with dogs), with all the strengths and weaknesses each individual possesses. What Isle of Dogs shows is that if we show humanity and try to connect with people, we’ll see their better side.
But Anderson hasn’t crafted a Pollyanna tale. To see the upside of Chief, you also have to acknowledge the downside of Rex and his friends. They mean well and they’re not the villains, but you get the sense that Anderson is a bit disenchanted with the democracy they represent. Their voting process is too perfunctory, too slow, and too subject to the latest rumor. In America, we hold up democracy as an innately good thing, and Anderson happily comes along and questions the foundation of our government, especially if it can be easily manipulated.
You can see these political signposts plastered around Isle of Dogs. For example, it’s not a coincidence that Kobayashi and his government all seem to have cats. That’s not to say that cats were behind the whole thing (although I kept waiting for the reveal), but that there’s a sense of foolish tribalism at play where we divide ourselves into arbitrary groups. Politics isn’t worthless, but at the same time, we may as well have parties based on cat people versus dog people as if it were impossible to like both or neither (I assume in this metaphor, third parties are represented by fish or reptiles).
Where Isle of Dogs could run into trouble, and where frankly I don’t feel comfortable critiquing the film, is in its handling of cultural appropriation. Anderson has made a clear attempt to at least be sensitive to cultural differences when it comes to language. All the dogs speak English, and all the Japanese citizens speak Japanese (we get subtitles or a translator for their dialogue). I will leave it to viewers of Japanese descent to judge whether or not Anderson is being culturally sensitive in his storytelling, and I look forward to reading those opinions.
For me, Isle of Dogs is another winner from Anderson. While not as stirring as Grand Budapest Hotel or Moonrise Kingdom, it’s nice to see the director trying to hone his storytelling into new areas and use it to say something about our world. And even if you want to ignore all the political aspects completely, you still have a lovely story about a dog and a boy going on an adventure. That always plays well no matter the setting.