Notable Festivals: Berlin (Silver Bear), SXSW (Closing Night)
It’s dangerous to be a dog in a Wes Anderson film. Whether it’s being caught between a brick wall and the receiving end of a speeding convertible as in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001) or speared through with a boy scout’s arrow as in MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012), man’s best friend repeatedly endures abuse or meets his untimely, inglorious end in some manner. One could be forgiven for thinking that Anderson simply hates dogs— enough so that he’s continually willing to risk that singular, unspoken cardinal rule of filmed entertainment: you can hurt, maim, or kill as many people as you want, but don’t you dare touch the dog. The premise of his 2018 feature, ISLE OF DOGS, would appear to be a culmination of his anti-dog crusade: an opportunity to banish the entirety of the canine species to an inhospitable island of literal garbage and jump-start their de-evolution back to feral scavengers. What ultimately emerges, however, is a grand revelation of Anderson’s fundamental love for these creatures, and a tribute to their defining qualities: unflappable loyalty, peerless integrity, and a ceaseless optimism about the world that rivals the innocence of a child.
An aesthetic style as preeningly delicate and meticulously composed as Anderson’s lends itself quite naturally to the world of stop-motion animation, so it’s a bit of a wonder that his ninth feature film would only be his second animated effort (2009’s FANTASTIC MR. FOX being his first). First inspired by a road sign he saw in England while making that film (1), ISLE OF DOGS builds on the idiosyncratic Rankin/Bass-influenced charm of Anderson’s earlier effort by weaving in his profound affection for the cinema of legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa (2). Kurosawa’s stoic, formal aesthetic has been a cornerstone of Anderson’s own artistry since the beginning, but the fictional Japanese setting of ISLE OF DOGS allows such foundations to assert themselves more overtly. That Anderson wrote the script from an original idea, and not an adaptation of a beloved Roald Dahl novel, allows him to further invoke Kurosawa’s spirit as he spices up a simplistic story about a boy searching for his beloved dog with fantastical landscapes, mutant castaways and even killer robots. The end result is a playful distillation of Anderson’s artistic and narrative conceits, exaggerated to an appropriately cartoonish degree.
ISLE OF DOGS is set twenty years into the future, in the fictional Japanese megalopolis called Megasaki City. Mayor Kobayashi, the latest ruler in a long dynastic line of cat lovers, governs the population with an iron fist that makes his public embrace of opposition expression a half-hearted one at best. Following the outbreak of a massive dog flu that threatened to sicken the city, Mayor Kobayashi enacted a massive effort to round up every single canine and ship them off to nearby Trash Island, an abandoned heap of garbage and ruins. Anderson’s story begins in earnest when the Mayor’s nephew and ward, plucky 12 year-old Atari (Koyo Rankin), steals a beat-up puddle jumper to fly to the island and retrieve his beloved companion Spots (voiced with a pragmatic stoicism by Liev Schrieber). He ends up just barely surviving a crash landing, and is rescued by a pack of self-described alpha dogs who, as former pets, are having a bit of difficulty adapting to the scavenger lifestyle. A handful of Anderson’s frequent collaborators lend their voices to this group: Edward Norton plays Rex, a pooch whose free-thinking nature often gets him into trouble; MOONRISE KINGDGOM’s Bob Balaban is King; Jeff Goldblum plays Duke; longtime company player Bill Murray plays Boss, a droll bulldog further distinguished by his little baseball sweater.
The pack is always bickering, as might be expected of a group of dogs accustomed to being the kings of their own domain, but they quickly fall in line behind the lone stray: the gruff Chief, voiced by Anderson company newcomer Bryan Cranston. As the group escorts Atari across Trash Island on his heroic quest, we come to realize that it is perhaps Chief who is ISLE OF DOGS’ main protagonist— he undergoes the fullest character arc as a stray who ultimately finds a home, family, and even love (in the form of a sassy show dog voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Anderson finds several opportunities along the way to pepper in contributions from other members of his actor repertory like F. Murray Abraham (as Jupiter, a sage elder type), Tilda Swinton (as Oracle, a space-y pug believed to have magical powers simply because she understands television), Kara Heyward (as Peppermint, Chief’s mate and the mutilated subject of horrific genetic experimentation), Harvey Keitel (as Gondo, the mangy, decomposing leader of a rival pack of rumored cannibals), and even Anjelica Huston (humorously credited as “Mute Poodle”). This already-expansive story finds yet even more room for several human characters— there’s fairly substantial roles for actresses like Frances McDormand (playing Kobayashi’s interpreter) and Greta Gerwig (as Tracy Walker, an American exchange student with a frizzy blonde Afro whose political activism gets herself into serious trouble), in addition to very minor bit parts nevertheless credited to notable actors (Yoko Ono, Ken Watanabe and Courtney B. Vance as a scientist’s assistant, a head surgeon, and a narrator marking the passage of time, respectively)— a testament to Anderson’s magnetic draw as a filmmaker.
ISLE OF DOGS, which was photographed in England, boasts much of the same animation crew behind FANTASTIC MR. FOX— if only because there aren’t many animators still working in the stop-motion style. The format lends itself quite effortlessly towards Anderson’s desire to control every aspect of his frame and the implied world contained therein, further heightening the impression of a theatrical “proscenium” or a two-dimensional diorama that shapes his aesthetic. Anderson’s camera movement echoes this conceit, favoring lateral moves across the x or y-axis not unlike a side-scrolling video game. While Anderson frequently employs the services of cinematographer Robert Yeoman for his live-action work, FANTASTIC MR. FOX’s Tristan Oliver has emerged as Anderson’s DP of record for his animated endeavors, helping his director harness the particular strengths of a Canon still camera towards his vision. Thanks to the larger resolution capabilities of the stills function in DSLR technology, ISLE OF DOGS was photographed in 5k, and then downscaled in editing to a 2K resolution video file in Anderson’s preferred 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Anderson and Oliver further build on their experience from FANTASTIC MR FOX with increasingly sophisticated storytelling techniques like canted angles and split-screen sequences. In an inspired touch, any action that’s presented within a television monitor or screen of some kind is rendered in a two-dimensional anime-style cel aesthetic, which reinforces the film’s loving homage to Japanese pop culture while diversifying the animation techniques on display. Returning production designer Adam Stockhausen collaborates with Paul Harrod to realize Anderson’s vision of a vibrant and tactile Megasaki City, creating a stark visual contrast from Trash Island’s brown/grey/rust color palette with saturated swaths of red, yellow, purple and green. Anderson also re-enlists composer Alexandre Desplat, whose original score uses the driving rhythms of taiko drums, whistling, and bass-y male chorals to playfully flirt with the line between an authentic Japanese character and cartoonish kitsch. Of course, this wouldn’t be a true Anderson picture without a deep-cut needledrop or two, and ISLE OF DOGS definitely delivers in his recurring use of the theme song from Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI as well as an admittedly-twee, lo-fi folk track from the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band titled “I Won’t Hurt You”.
Throughout his career, Anderson has pursued a certain timeless quality in his work, gradually detaching from reality in favor of miniaturized, self-contained worlds better calibrated to his exacting specifications. Eccentric characters reacting to realistic environments, such as the type to populate BOTTLE ROCKET (1996) and THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007) have given way to larger-than-life protagonists inhabiting the painstakingly-realized snowglobes seen in MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012) and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014). The insularity of these self-contained worlds is further reinforced by their inhabitants’ strict social bubbles— in addition to the highly-regimented class divisions of Japanese society seen in the film, ISLE OF DOGS further divides the already-isolated dog population into distinct groups like the central pack of alpha dogs, or the so-called “cannibal” dogs who are exiled twice over. Anderson’s fascination with the marriage between social standing and identity explains the international (and predominantly-Continental) flavor of his aesthetic; even films like BOTTLE ROCKET, RUSHMORE and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS — all set in America, the nation whose founding principles supposedly divorce the concept of social class from the ability to determine one’s identity — find their protagonists’ struggling with the mismatch between where they come from and who they want to be. Towards this end, uniforms become an important signifier in Anderson’s work, and ISLE OF DOGS continues the tradition by decking 12 year-old Atari in a silver flight suit to signify the heroic, adventurous nature of his quest.
The recurring themes of language and literacy provide a similar conduit, whereby his characters are notably more articulate or verbose than the general population. Like a crisp pair of monogrammed pajamas, “speaking well” is an affectation that Anderson’s characters use to project their class or social status (or, in the case of RUSHMORE’s Max Fischer, their aspirations for upward mobility). ISLE OF DOGS frames this idea through the prism of translation, opting to fully embrace its international underpinnings by featuring characters who speak in their native tongue. Lines delivered in Japanese are presented without subtitles— a risky prospect in a climate where most moviegoers avoid foreign films on the whole, but one that also allows characters like McDormand’s Interpreter Nelson to editorialize during the process of translation. It’s also a major source of the film’s comedy, with the English-speaking dogs often forced to guess at Atari’s Japanese commands. Anderson deftly balances this levity with the film’s more-somber aspects, arriving at the latest iteration of the unique tone he’s spent his entire career cultivating— a mood that’s childlike in its innocent eagerness for swashbuckling adventure, and yet, distinctively adult, laden with pangs of melancholic nostalgia, profound regret, and frequent reminders of both life’s fleeting fragility and the cosmos’ cold indifference. Tragedy is always lurking behind the chipper smiles of his protagonists; with the exception of Chief, the central pack of alpha dogs in the film all come from assumably-loving homes only to be abandoned and exiled onto a tetanus-riddled wasteland. Family — or more accurately, the lack thereof — becomes a chief motivating factor behind Atari’s quest, with his having been raised under the icy guardianship of his uncle and the watchful eye of his beloved Spots positioning him as the latest figure in a long stretch of literal or figurative orphans throughout Anderson’s work. That the director’s carefully-cultivated Dickensian flair is so visible through the heavy veneer of Japanese iconography & kitsch is evidence of the complete command of craft and voice that sets him apart from his many imitators.
Anderson is hardly regarded as a controversial filmmaker, but even he is not immune from the wrath of today’s pervasive “cancel culture”. With its Japanese backdrop — which Anderson posits as an affectionate homage — ISLE OF DOGS nevertheless invites unwanted attention from critics (professional and armchair alike) who would decry his cultural “tourism” or appropriation (3), or highlight his inclusion of Tracy’s character as a “white savior” trope. Such attacks recall the reception to Sofia Coppola’s Tokyo-set LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003), in which certain audiences were too repulsed by its undeniable Anglo-Saxon gaze to see the sublime, delicate beauty underneath. This sort of outcry tends to accompany Western films set in Eastern cultures— after all, nobody lifted a finger when Anderson sailed the Mediterranean for THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004), or barnstormed across the fictional Eastern European / Caucasus landscape of THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. There may have been some fuss over his vision of three white men traversing India in THE DARJEELING LIMITED, but certainly not to the degree that ISLE OF DOGS is criticized. One gets the sense that it’s the film’s nature as an animated work that amplifies such accusations— admittedly, the inherently-artificial nature of anything within the camera’s frame imbues the picture with an inescapable cartoonish quality, flattening and exaggerating the mise-en-scene by necessity. Of course, ISLE OF DOGS isn’t an authentic reflection of Japanese culture; nor did it ever set out to be. A Japanese director undoubtedly would have brought more nuance and subtlety to the proceedings, but the fact remains that Anderson — through sheer force of creative will, professional clout and affection for Japanese culture — is the one who brought ISLE OF DOGS forth into the world. Regardless of one’s take on the finished product, it’s simply a bad-faith argument to claim that his intentions were anything other than benevolent.
While an atmosphere of controversy noticeably enveloped ISLE OF DOGS, it would nonetheless prove to be a thin one— easily penetrated by a bombardment of positive reviews and audience appreciation. It was a crowd favorite on the festival circuit, where it was programmed as the closing night film at South By Southwest and was awarded the prestigious Silver Bear at Berlin. High-profile Oscar nominations in the Best Animated Picture and Best Score categories would follow, as would a rather-modest worldwide box office haul of $65 million. Its financial performance may be on the anemic side, especially in a franchise-dominated theatrical climate where animated films enjoy higher profiles by virtue of their relative scarcity, but Anderson’s popularity as a filmmaker no doubt bolstered the film’s earning potential. ISLE OF DOGS’ lo-fi, organic qualities provide a warm antidote to the clinical computer-generated precision of modern animated films, and it will surely age far better. Its warm reception ensures Anderson’s return to the animation medium in the future, and opens a pathway for the celebrated filmmaker to carve out new avenues within an inimitable career.
ISLE OF DOGS is currently available on high definition Blu ray via Twentieth Century Fox.
Written by: Wes Anderson
Produced by: Wes Anderson, Jeremy Dawson, Steven Rales, Scott Rudin
Director of Photography: Tristan Oliver
Production Designer: Adam Stockhausen, Paul Harrod
Edited by: Andrew Weisblum, Edward Busch, Ralph Foster
Music by: Alexandre Desplat
- Via Wikipedia: Buxton, Adam (March 31, 2018). “EP.70 – GARTH JENNINGS & WES ANDERSON”. The Adam Buxton Podcast. Retrieved July 20,2018.
- Via Wikipedia: Sharf, Zach (March 13, 2017). “Wes Anderson’s ‘Isle of Dogs’ is Inspired By Akira Kurosawa and Christmas Television Specials”. IndieWire. Penske Business Media. Retrieved March 17, 2017
- Via Wikipedia: Clift, Tom (March 25, 2018). “Wes Anderson’s ‘Isle Of Dogs’ Has Been Accused Of Cultural Appropriation”. Junkee. Junkee Media. Retrieved March 28, 2018.