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SXSW Film Review: Isle of Dogs Refuses to Get Sentimental About Its Canines

on March 18, 2018, 10:51am
Isle of Dogs A-
Director
Wes Anderson
Cast
Bryan Cranston, Greta Gerwig, Bill Murray, Edward Norton
Release Year
2018
Rating
PG-13

In 2012, The New Yorker ran an article titled “Does Wes Anderson Hate Dogs?”, in which Ian Crouch gave a rundown of the ill treatment toward pooches throughout the writer/director’s filmography. There’s the vehicular death of Buckley the beagle in The Royal Tenenbaums; the abandonment and Goldblumian slapping of the three-legged Cody in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou; the poisoning of Spitz (another beagle) in Fantastic Mr. Fox; and Anderson‘s most notorious canine death, a fox terrier named Snoopy getting fatally run through with an arrow in Moonrise Kingdom.

Crouch posits that Anderson might get off on torturing dogs. Or perhaps the filmmaker is simply using the creatures as another avenue for exploring the tragedy present in everyday life (the people don’t exactly get off easy in his films, either). Or, more interestingly, maybe the animals are the bleakest kind of collateral damage for the shitty actions of human beings.

Anderson’s latest stop-motion epic, Isle of Dogs, falls into the latter camp. In a brisk opening montage voiced by Courtney B. Vance (continuing Anderson’s trend of academic yet empathetic narrators), we learn that, in a somewhat desolate future, Japan’s dogs have all been quarantined on a nearby island of garbage due to something called canine flu. Although the illness isn’t exactly a death sentence for every animal that gets it, we still see a lot of sick dogs from the get-go: runny snouts, bloodshot eyes, and the general filthiness that comes from living on an expansive stretch of trash afflict just about all of the canines.

But as the plot unfolds and becomes more intricate, the film reveals something not pointed out by Crouch’s article: Wes Anderson respects the hell out of dogs. In Isle, he harms them not because he’s a sicko, but because he believes they’re every bit as deserving of a complex adventure narrative as human characters — perhaps even more so. Once Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), the sweet and steadfast nephew of the tyrannical mayor (Kunichi Nomura, who shares story credit with Anderson, Jason Schwartzman, and Roman Coppola) crash-lands on the island in search of his patient-zero dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), the film becomes a Kurosawan odyssey. Due to his injuries, Atari even takes on a limp and dazed look, now outfitted with physical tics in the same way as characters from Yojimbo and Rashomon.

(Ranking: Every Wes Anderson Character from Worst to Best)

It would have been easy for Anderson and co. to give the same visual or aural distinctions to the five dogs at the center of their film. But unlike an animated Disney movie, where anthropomorphized animals tend to each have their own bluntly hyperactive trait, each member of Isle‘s holy quintet remains lower-key, their individuality coming from the nuances already inherent in the performers’ voices. Rex (Edward Norton) seems to be the good-natured leader of the group; King (Bob Balaban) used to be a spokes-dog for a dog-food company; Chief (Bryan Cranston) claims to be a stray; Boss (actual Chicago Cubs super-fan Bill Murray) is a former baseball mascot; and Duke (Jeff Goldbum) has a penchant for gossip and gathering information about the world back home. And yet none of them are defined by these roles, their personalities closer to toned-down versions of who the actors are in real life.

The same principle applies to the ensemble cast of supporting dogs we meet as everyone searches for Spots. Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) is somewhat of a wizened sage on the island, but Anderson never pushes his age or wisdom to the point of caricature. Likewise, Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) becomes a potential love interest for Chief as he and Atari get separated and he gradually becomes the main dog of the film. But Anderson never amplifies her femininity or abilities as a trick-dog. She acts and speaks with the same kind of naturalism as the other characters. Even Tilda Swinton‘s TV-obsessed pug-mix, Oracle, draws more laughs from her silences and stoicism than her status as the film’s sole small dog breed.

All of this probably reads as a spiritual successor to Anderson’s other stop-motion animal epic, Fantastic Mr. Fox. But despite also having a large cast of talking critters (several of whom admittedly get lost in the film’s final act), Isle has more intensity; more at stake. As character truths rear their shaggy heads, government conspiracies are confirmed, and a band of rebels led by foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) get involved, it’s not just the dogs that have a lot to lose, but the humans as well. Without spoiling anything, the mission changes for all of them, the momentum fueled by production touches that are new for Anderson. While there’s still some whimsy to be had with a handful of sequences scored by his usual soundtrack of ’60s and ’70s Britpop, most of the film gains extra sonic muscle from thundering taiko drums, including an opening sequence where we get to see the percussionists themselves.

And where previous Anderson films (most notably The Grand Budapest Hotel) have caught the eye with deliberate use of pastels, Isle is more interested in drabness. Throughout the island of garbage, Anderson and his team explore more subtle and not always pretty shades of gray, beige, black, and brown. When he does decide to mix up his palette with an unexpected burst of color — such as a hovel constructed from different types of glass bottles — the chromatic expansion becomes that much more meaningful.

Of course, these select few moments of majesty often get interrupted by an act of violence — a scrap over food, a dog losing an ear, someone getting poisoned. Contrary to what we may have once thought, though, Anderson isn’t getting off on torturing the animals as much as he’s honoring them. The characters in Isle of Dogs may fight. They may get vicious. They may get hurt. They may get sick. But they also get nostalgic. They also get bashful. Their eyes also well up with tears when they reconnect with their loved ones, or when they first realize that love even exists at all. Just like humans.

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