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‘Isle of Dogs’ Is a Fairy Tale With a Heart of Darkness

With ‘Isle of Dogs,’ Wes Anderson reveals once and for all his love of humankind’s furry friend. He might even convert a few cat people too.

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There has always been a strain of darkness lingering underneath the surface of Wes Anderson’s films. Whether mental illness in Bottle Rocket, family strife in The Royal Tenenbaums, or loss of purpose in The Life Aquatic, those darker elements have always been there, just below a glossy layer of whimsy. His previous film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, went even further, adopting the greatest tragedy of the 20th Century as its looming source of menace. Anderson’s newest film, Isle of Dogs, is one of his most remarkable tightrope acts; it’s stuffed to the limits with visual inventions that inspire childlike wonder, despite the fact that its story often touches on genocide and national tragedies. It’s one of Anderson’s greatest balancing acts to date.

Isle of Dogs is chockfull of allusions to classic Japanese cinema, most of them from the films of Akira Kurosawa, but the movie opens with a nod to a different film: Masaki Kobayashi’s 1965 Kwaidan, a three-hour omnibus composed of various ghost stories. (Anderson even names one of the characters after Kobayashi.) The final (and longest) segment opens with a fairy tale evocation of an ancient battle between warring clans, told through a mix of illustration and live action. Anderson evokes that scene in the opening of Isle of Dogs, showing old-style Japanese illustrations of a feud between two rival families — one that favors cats and one that favors dogs.

In present day Megasaki City (which looks a bit like what a 1960s Godzilla film would imagine the year 2000 looking like), Mayor Kobayashi assembles the citizens to announce that all dogs are being quarantined and sent to Trash Island because of an outbreak of snout fever. He stands in front of a grim Citizen Kane-esque banner, looking an awful lot like Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune circa High and Low (1963), with his perpetually furrowed brow and dark mustache. Kobayashi is voiced by Kunichi Nomura, who’s credited with the story along with Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola. The first dog to be sent to Trash Island is Kobayashi’s own, Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber) — except that we later learn that Spots actually belongs to Kobayashi’s young ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin). Atari, an orphan who still bears the scars of the accident that killed his parents, has nothing left in life except his dog. He flies to Trash Island in a little one-seater jet that rumbles and backfires enough to suggest Atari built it himself by hand, and when he lands on the island, Spot is nowhere to be seen. From there, a mostly friendly pack of dogs agrees to help in the search (voiced by Anderson alumni Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, and Bob Balaban).

The stop-motion animation style that Anderson first employed in Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) is still present in Isle of Dogs. He often revels in the low-tech origins of the style, favoring a static camera over more obvious movements, and even when he does move the camera, it’s either side to side or forward and back. Other stop-motion animators have tried to make their cameras as fluid and full of movement as possible in a reaction to the format’s previous limitations, but Anderson is happy to live within those limits, even if he’s artificially imposing them at this point. Yet even as his camera seems chained to the past, the film adopts a dizzying array of new visual elements. Traditional animation is also a major part of the film, and almost every TV screen shown features a drawn image. Classic tropes dating back to the Road Runner and Looney Tunes even crop up (whenever the dogs get into a fight, it just turns into a constantly roiling cloud of dust and debris). It’s a charmingly simple and old-fashioned alternative to complex choreography, but the film is still full of dense images. Anderson’s Megasaki City is a neon-colored wonderland of imposing towers and delicate details, and the garbage of Trash City is finely composed and distinct.

As delightful as it is to look at Isle of Dogs, it’s hard to avoid the darker currents of the film. The Grand Budapest Hotel took a jaundiced view of the proto-fascist forces that would soon cover much of Europe and lead to the Second World War and the Holocaust. Here Anderson again hints at genocide when Megasaki City’s dogs are all rounded up and shipped off to a distant place where death awaits them. It’s impossible to think of the justification — snout fever — without thinking of propaganda materials that claimed German Jews carried lice, especially after it’s revealed that the snout fever is just a ruse.

But there are more modern tragedies on Anderson’s mind as well. Whenever there is an explosion, balls of smoke rise up that seem to resemble mushroom clouds, a reminder of the terrible destruction rained down on Japan at the close of World War II. Elsewhere, we’re shown buildings and facilities that were destroyed by natural disasters, which surely brings to mind the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed nearly 16,000 people and injured thousands more, in addition to leading to a nuclear reactor meltdown. At every turn, Anderson seeks to remind us of these tragedies, even as they’re disguised behind his pithy dialogue.

Isle of Dogs

Anderson’s approach to his Japanese setting is surprisingly nuanced for a filmmaker who seems to live perpetually in a bubble of his own design. The Japanese characters are all played by Japanese actors, mostly speaking in untranslated Japanese, although a translator (Frances McDormand) converts a good chunk of their dialogue into English — which the dogs and non-Japanese characters speak. In addition to voicing Mayor Kobayashi, Nomura provided a sense of cultural competency around Japanese customs and behavior. Some have complained about the film’s treatment of its Japanese characters, particularly their lack of translation; it’s an understandable reaction, but doesn’t consider how this always works as a special bonus to Japanese-speaking viewers of the film. English speakers get all the dialogue that’s necessary, but Anderson and his colleagues save the full impact of the dialogue for the very people they’re depicting.

The real issue with Isle of Dogs, the thing that keeps it from rising with Anderson’s greatest films, is his abandonment of color. From The Royal Tenenbaums on, Anderson has delighted in creating carefully designed worlds that feature his very specific tastes in fonts and pastel colors. Even his biggest detractors usually concede that a Wes Anderson film is nothing if not a pleasure to look at. But even though those colors are retained in the urban scenes, most of Trash Island is colored with dull grays and muddy browns, occasionally flecked with orange. The amount of detail the film devotes to these settings is extraordinary, but they create a sickening feeling after about a half hour.

Isle of Dogs is without a doubt one of Anderson’s funniest films, and despite its dark subtext, one that will appeal to many children as much as adults. For years, people have been wondering how Anderson really feels about dogs, considering that they often die in his films. With Isle of Dogs, he reveals once and for all his love of humankind’s furry friend. He might even convert a few cat people too.

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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