It seems like through Wes Anderson’s filmography, while his style has moved towards the realm of extreme formalism, the stories he employs it to tell are spacing out into these maximalist folds. His worlds contain seemingly boundless possibilities, unconcerned by form or structure the characters bounce from event to event as strung along by some dream logic. Whatever sense exists in Anderson’s dialogue, and it is easily malleable, buffeted by strange winds and desires, serves to chase the characters to some new episode. Always unexpected, always inventive.
Like, you try and describe the plot of booth this and The Grand Budapest Hotel and it’s frankly insane that each clocks in at just about 100 minutes. I’m struggling to remember every incident that goes on, every set and model that he utilises here. Say you take thirty seconds looking at the cast list on that poster and I’ll be betting that you wouldn’t be able to recall everything on there
It makes the movies very hard to classify. This is going to come across as an unfair comparison, and maybe rightly so, but his creations are as stolid and impenetrable as those of Michael Bay. It’s like these are two of cinemas foremost stylists, and while the pictures that Anderson creates are in my opinion more approachable and prettier they exist in the same way as documents unto themselves, disregarding of their audiences sensibilities, demanding that they engage with the film in its space.
This ain’t necessarily a bad thing, it leads to uncompromising art for one, and so long as you are ready to put in the work to furnish your creation with the depth and beauty that will be its only source of fuel it can tend towards greatness. It’s why nobody likes Michael Bay’s bad movies, they’re too lazy, his racism and sexism are too readily apparent and when that is properly confronted the flimsiness of all his premise is laid bare for all to see. Without providing the audience with a shareable philosophy, one comes to easily reject the work.
Now I’m a cat person. Sure, dogs can often be good but I ain’t all in on that scene. That being said though, it comes very hard to object to any film whose central thesis is that dogs are noble and good and full of love and are often better than the humans that they are supposed to be trying to protect. Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum play a pack of dogs exiled from the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki to an offshore island dumping ground by the corrupt, dog-hating mayor Kobayashi.
When the mayor’s adopted child Atari steals a plane and crash-lands in their territory in search of his similarly exiled companion, this pack vows to assist the little pilot boy in finding the missing hound by any means necessary. Meanwhile, back in the city, and spurred on by Atari’s unlikely heroism, Foreign Exchange Student Tracy Walker starts a line of reportage in her school’s newspaper with the intention of exposing the Mayor’s flagrant corruption and anti-dog bias.
Intricate, heartfelt and full of Anderson’s charming and inimitable details the story breezes by. The vocal cast are superb, even if, aside from Cranston as self-appointed pack leader Chief and Greta Gerwig as Tracy, they are often only afforded a single moment to make an impact. Indeed, the approach to sound editing we have here will either render a voice emerging out of a silent field or mix it down into meaninglessness.
Speaking of which, somewhere along the line the decision was made to have all the Japanese character’s dialogue be untranslated in the script and largely unsubtitled. A rule to which even the film itself doesn’t always hold itself accountable. Instead the dogs speak in English, and sometimes when the film deigns it necessary, A Frances McDormand character Interpreter Nelson will be on hand to provide live translation. I suppose this is for an unseen textual English language audience, she ain’t translating for the dogs certainly.
It’s a conceit that people have had problems with. In my position as someone who has no dog in the fight, it felt like an odd and uncomfortable choice to make. I will include at the end of this review to some writing by Asian American critics and commentators on their view on the matter. For my part I’ll say that this marginalisation of the film characters, in addition to Tracy’s role as a fairly stereotypical white saviour type and the film’s appropriation of a lot of culturally specific imagery with no clear intention ain’t a good scene.
It’s the lack of intentionality that really rankles I guess. Like, what is the film trying to be? What is it trying to say? I can’t quite make it out. Anderson’s past two films have been full of zaniness and action but have been primarily focused on the role that nostalgia plays in our lives, as an escape from the horrors of adult life (and possibly fascism) and why we tell stories that engage with us on that level.
I just can’t deeper roots here, maybe when and if I watch the thing again. For not it just seems to exist to celebrate its own beauty and cleverness. I appreciate that, I find it clever, I find it funny and I find it very, very beautiful. But like cotton candy it has by now all but evaporated off of my tongue and I don’t really feel satiated at all.
I suppose it is a minor work from an American master maybe, hopefully one day I’ll look back and find something more in it than the beauty. But if I don’t then at least there’ll be a large bank of screenshots that I’ll be able to use as future computer wallpapers. They might even work better out of context.
Isle of Dogs is currently screening in UK cinemas.
Images courtesy of Fox Searchlight
For additional perspective on the film’s treatment of race I’d recommend checking out: