Dogs and humans have a relationship that goes back thousands of years to when we were hunter-gatherers and would hunt with wolves and share scraps with them by the fire. Our first sentient allies. Man’s best friend. One of the most moving stories about a dog and their master is that of Hachikō, the famous Akita who would walk with his owner to the train station each day and continue to wait for him there nine years after his sudden death. Now a statue of Hachikō stands at Shibuya Station and he is buried next to his master at Aoyama Cemetery. Anyone who has loved a dog knows just how special and unique this bond is, and as someone who remains impartial in the dog-cat wars, there is still no comparison to canine companionship. For such an enriching human experience, it’s not an ideal subject for a movie. A mostly unspoken and simple love, any film that tries to make a dog into a character or articulates a relationship between a person and a dog is usually fraudulent and clumsy. Leave it to Wes Anderson to find his own eccentric way to pay loving tribute in a fantastical, funny and moving stop-motion animated adventure.
In the Japanese city of Megasaki the corrupt Mayor Kobayashi has ordered all dogs to be exiled to an island in order to contain the threat of “Dog Flu,” a rapidly spreading disease that could infect humans. The Isle of Dogs is a wasteland of trash and rotten food. One pack of dogs headed by Rex (voiced by Edward Norton) are growing weaker and demoralized. Mostly domesticated, the odd one in the bunch is Chief (Bryan Cranston), an ill-tempered stray who periodically reminds us, “I bite.” When a 12-year-old boy named Atari—the Mayor’s ward, we discover—crashes onto the island in search of his beloved (specially trained bodyguard) dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), the pack decides to help him.
At the beginning of the film, an intertitle tells us that all barks are translated into English. The Japanese dialogue is occasionally translated by diegetic translators in the film (Frances McDormand does most of this legwork as she delivers Kobayashi’s speeches in English). Only the tip of the iceberg of Isle of Dogs’ cleverness, this conceit pays off in various ways throughout—including scenes where Japanese dialogue goes untranslated and emphasis is placed on Anderson’s smorgasbord of visual play. Closer to The Grand Budapest Hotel’s formal exuberance than that of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, I can’t think of a film having more fun with itself. Anderson revels in the level of control that stop-motion affords him and is particularly inspired here, seeming to never run out of ideas. The staples of his style—its preciseness, the symmetry, center-framing, et cetera—are all easy things to pick on but barely describe his creativity with composition and building sequences. In fact, he hardly repeats himself. Graphically varied and expressive with a rapid pace and endless onslaught of gags, Anderson keeps finding new ways to use technique in ways far more sophisticated than those who dismiss his hermetic specificity would have you believe.
Anderson’s sequences have the sense of being conceived with such determination that perhaps they would feel robotic if there was not such a genuine playfulness. At its core, this is his most purely sentimental movie, and yet the ways in which he articulates that sentimentality feel urgent, never an afterthought but ratyer the core from which the film’s elaborate packaging organically extends.
All that being said, the latest from Wes Anderson highlights what is best and worst about his style. Detractors will have an easy time of pointing out the aesthetic and even dubious superficiality behind Anderson’s desire to set this in Japan if only to find a perfect match for his obsession with ornate design. It’s not his first touristic and appropriative project, but The Darjeeling Limited had an inherent reflexivity with its privileged Westerns seeking spiritual reconciliation in India—that clash between their ignorance and their idealized exotic destination is a prominent theme in the film. But here there doesn’t appear to be any such gesture, and Anderson’s reverence for and usage of Japanese imagery, artwork and cultural signifiers is transparently Orientalist, most regrettably a bastardization of the haiku for comic effect.
It’s an unfortunate flipside to what is otherwise astonishing entertainment—this may be Anderson’s most purely fun film, un bon gateau as the French would say (Yoi kēki?). Next to his best, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which found the filmmaker reaching outside of himself and thinking more deeply, this is a step back of sorts. However, as slight as Isle of Dogs may seem, this special bond between dog and human—the loyalty, devotion and its history—is not a frivolous subject. In our ever-changing world, our relationships to dogs stay remarkably consistent, even anachronistic, unimpeded by techno-evolution. In a flashback that shows us how Spots and Atari met, when the dog was assigned as his personal bodyguard, they’re each given an earpiece that translates barks into Japanese and Japanese into barks. A boy and his dog being able to speak to one another is a deeply touching fantasy and Anderson reveals it in a delicate shot-reverse shot sequence. Atari whispers into the headset and, surprised, Spots tells his master he can understand him. Having just met, this boy and his dog cry.