Isle of Dogs: Self-Defeating Solemnity

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

** ½ (out of 4)

After making a whole movie about man’s worst enemy, Wes Anderson apparently thought he could make amends by creating one about our supposed best friends. Isle of Dogs, his newest film, is set in a futuristic Japanese city called “Megasaki,” where the mayor (Kunichi Nomura) has decided to expel all the city’s canine residents to “Trash Island” in order to contain a nasty outbreak of “snout fever.” Naturally, none of the dogs in question – we meet several, including Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) – particularly likes the idea of being quarantined. And neither, it transpires, does the mayor’s ward, a teenage boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin). In an act of reckless bravery that also serves as the film’s inciting incident, Atari steals a plane and flies himself to Trash Island – all in the name of bringing back his pet Spots (Liev Schreiber).

On the whole, Anderson’s latest work certainly has many good points. As with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Alexandre Desplat’s catchy, compelling soundtrack makes use of an eclectic variety of Western and non-Western instruments (particularly Taiko drums). The script, as you might expect, showcases Anderson’s distinctive penchant for quirky, obsessively descriptive dialogue. And aside from underscoring the remarkable precision of Anderson’s craft, the film’s meticulously symmetrical visuals also speak to his extensive knowledge of art history; throughout the movie, he makes innumerable tributes to Katsushika Hokusai, Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and other great masters.

Despite these virtues, however, fans of Anderson’s work will likely leave Isle somewhat disappointed. In the past, after all, his films’ charm has always stemmed from their willingness to operate by their own logic. Among other, lesser directors, themes like familial strife (treated by Anderson in The Royal Tenenbaums), unappreciated individuality (treated in Rushmore), and old Europe’s decline (treated in Budapest) have inspired countless “serious” and “realistic” dramas defined by their overweening self-absorption. But in Anderson’s hands, these topics have invariably just provided the basis for his unique, reality-bending brand of comedy, the kind of humor that eschews heavy-handed messaging in favor of immersing us in its own self-contained universe. Because of this, Anderson’s works have always felt refreshingly whimsical and unpretentious – and while they usually do carry some kind of indirect insight into this world’s problems, you can tell that Anderson didn’t make them with that goal in mind.

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

The issue with Isle, on the other hand, is that it’s clearly more interested in our reality than in its own. From the get-go, Anderson repeatedly emphasizes the fact that his narrative can be interpreted as an allegory. He stuffs the script with blatant references to events as disparate as today’s refugee crisis and World War II, and his images brim with visual allusions to demagogues like Adolf Hitler. This real-world fixation not only sidelines the film’s comedic aspects – its attempts at humor come off as awkward interruptions, as though Anderson were unwillingly directing his attention away from something more enticing to him – but it also renders the film excessively weighty. Anderson’s insistence on connecting Isle’s story to our world is earnest, but in the end, that earnestness is the main reason his ideas and overall approach feel uncharacteristically obvious.

Even on its own merits, moreover, the comedy in Isle generally isn’t worth the price of admission. For starters, it tends towards monotony: many of the script’s gags are either dog-related puns (e.g. “the underdog dogs”) or “dogs and humans speak different languages” jokes. And at some points, the humor is even borderline insulting. To take the most egregious example, the film’s mocking portrayal of Tracy (Greta Gerwig), an exchange student who follows Atari’s case, makes her out to be a frivolous, stereotypical teenage girl who only cares about crushes and “conspiracy theories.” Meanwhile, Anderson’s occasionally parodic depiction of Japanese culture – as a case in point, watch for the way he sets up a haiku recitation at the film’s end – might remind you a bit of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a movie that builds its comedy off a snarky but drive-by view of American culture.

Most bad animated films are bad because they lack any substance whatsoever (cough cough, Minions). By that standard, Isle really shouldn’t have any problems. It constantly strives to say something meaningful, and its narrative structure breaks with the dispiritingly conventional plotting of more mainstream works (e.g. Coco). Yet for anyone who’s come to appreciate Anderson’s aesthetic, particularly his refusal to ever take himself too seriously, the fastidious sincerity of Isle will represent a step back. Gone is the uninhibited joy of Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s last animated effort; what we get instead is a film that spends too much energy trying to make itself look important and timely. Here’s hoping Anderson recovers his magic touch in time for whatever wacky endeavor he embarks on next.

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

***

Isle of Dogs (2018)

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Liev Schreiber, Courtney B. Vance

Running Time: 101 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13, “for thematic elements and some violent images.”

Produced by: Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, Jeremy Dawson

Story by: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura

Written and Directed by: Wes Anderson