Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
Scraps of Dog-Gone Brilliance
I have yet to meet anyone who completely dislikes Wes Anderson’s work, but living in his hometown of Houston, TX probably makes that fact slightly biased. One or more films of Anderson’s filmography is often a favorite of any movie fan you strike up a conversation with and for good reason. Wes Anderson’s eye for vivid color, his incredible use of dry humor, and ability to make an independent film feel not so independent are typically qualities that appeal to nearly everyone. Anderson’s first plunge into stop-motion animation, 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, is a personal favorite. As Anderson returns to the medium for the first time in nearly a decade with Isle of Dogs, it's interesting to seeing how his adventures in stop-motion compare.
Japan isn’t exactly unfamiliar with dystopian futures, but Anderson’s take on the time period is entirely different. In Megasaki City, Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) announces that due to a snout fever and dog flu epidemic all the dogs of Japan are banished to Trash Island. Kobayashi makes it seem as though no cure is possible despite a scientist named Professor Watanabe being on the verge of a breakthrough. Six months pass and Trash Island is now overrun with dogs. A 12-year-old boy named Atari Kobayashi (voiced by Koyu Rankin), the orphaned son of the mayor, hijacks a plane and heads to Trash Island in search of his guard dog Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber) who was also the first dog to be sent to the island. Along with former house dogs Rex (voiced by Edward Norton), King (voiced by Bob Balaban), Boss (voiced by Bill Murray), and Duke (voiced by Jeff Goldblum) and stray Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), Atari peruses all of Trash Island in what may be a lost effort since Spots is believed to be dead.
For those who are unaware, Fantastic Mr. Fox was recorded in a fantastically intriguing way. Similar to how Rango was recorded as the actors physically acted out their scenes on a set in a sound studio as they did their voiceovers, Fantastic Mr. Fox actually had the actors recording outside in an effort to match wherever they were in the film. Some criticism was received for Anderson’s directing of the film since the animation crew in London would often receive their instructions from Anderson via email or iPhone as he was in a completely different time zone and not physically on set most days. Details are currently fairly slim if Isle of Dogs was filmed the same way, but considering Jeff Goldblum recorded all of his lines over the phone since he couldn’t leave California while the rest of the cast was in England it certainly sounds like a similar situation. We’ll have a better idea of what went on behind the scenes when the hardcover Wes Anderson Collection: Isle of Dogs book is released at the end of May. The Making of Fantastic Mr. Fox book is extraordinary with interviews, rare behind the scenes photos, and information regarding Roald Dahl, the original Fantastic Mr. Fox book, and other inspirations that give an inside look on what made the picture. The Isle of Dogs book should be just as thorough and great.
There’s so much detail in Isle of Dogs to the extent that you immediately want to see it again after the first viewing because you feel like you missed something the first time around. It was cool to see segments of the film animated in a more traditional hand drawn kind of style whenever the film panned to camera footage or the cellular animation during the scientist’s work on the dog flu cure. There’s a huge Akira Kurosawa influence throughout the picture like direct music cues from Seven Samurai, which only makes the film more awesome. IMDb currently lists the film as the longest stop-motion picture to date beating out Coraline by a mere two minutes, but a film that played at Fantastic Fest in 2017 called Junk Head is even longer (with writer and director Takahide Hori doing the majority of the production by himself). If it ever gets a wide release, then we’ll have a record breaking debut on our hands.
As Isle of Dogs follows Atari as he searches for Spots, the animated film has the wheels of several other subplots chugging along at the same time. Four of the five dogs Atari initially encounters on Trash Island are loyal to him, but Chief is a stubborn stray who likes to live by his own rules and not be bossed around by anyone. His lone wolf persona softens once he meets former show dog Nutmeg (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) whom he immediately develops a connection with. Kobayashi continues to cover up the progress made by scientists regarding the dog flu cure for a more sinister plan involving robot dogs. A foreign exchange student from Cincinnati, Ohio named Tracy Walker (voiced by Greta Gerwig) believes a conspiracy is going on and uses her investigative skills to bring it to light.
This film was also met with criticism regarding Tracy Walker being the “white savior” character of the film and Isle of Dogs is accused of being utterly blind to Japanese culture altogether. Animation has almost always had racial undertones going back to old Disney cartoons, Merrie Melodies, and classic Looney Tunes shorts. It doesn’t make those stereotypes okay, but it also shouldn’t be surprising to find that element of the animation process surviving more than half a century. To be honest, Tracy doesn’t feel like the saving grace of the events of the film. She does her part, but so many other characters contribute to the conclusion of the film that it feels like the characters you come to love throughout the picture utilize what’s considered within their unique skill-set for a cooperative greater good. Maybe that’s the ignorant American in me talking, but it honestly didn’t bother me especially if you’re familiar with the history of animation and Wes Anderson’s work in general.
Four people contributed to the story for the film including Anderson, voice of Mayor Kobayashi Kunichi Nomura, and frequent Anderson collaborators Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman. While Anderson’s status as director should see him getting the majority of the heat regarding racism in the film, at the same time four individuals are also responsible for the structure of the film. Isle of Dogs is literally about an admiration for dogs, which is even more apparent when you say the film title out loud. Dogs are put through hell over the course of the picture, but you don’t see PETA jumping in to say you should never bite the ear off a dog or throw them in an incinerator since the animals could, you know, die. Maybe the Japanese stuff isn’t meant to be taken literally and is just a backdrop for a dystopian future. Cartoons are meant to be tongue in cheek and entertainment that is often absurd in order to make you laugh. They are often constructed on paper thin concepts and end up being timeless masterpieces because of their ridiculous nature with little to no factual qualities to them. Some may be produced with an economic statement or political agenda in mind, but most exist because they exist in a fantastical world where the impossible is plausible for no reason whatsoever. Maybe some critics are taking the racial aspect of the film too seriously or maybe I’m dead inside and nothing affects me like a normal person. This is something to think about when you get around to seeing the film.
Visually, Isle of Dogs is even more intricately detailed than Fantastic Mr. Fox. The Criterion Collection release of Fantastic Mr. Fox is not only packed to the brim with extras, but also features a beautiful transfer of the film that is stunningly gorgeous. Imagining Isle of Dogs getting the same treatment leaves you drooling and sneezing as if you’ve happily just contracted dog flu. There’s so much to process with Isle of Dogs. It’s a complicated animated film, but a well-executed and gorgeous animated follow-up for Wes Anderson. Fantastic Mr. Fox catered to what Anderson loved as a child while Isle of Dogs tackles more mature subject matter that would appeal to a teenager; adult language is actually used in the film with Chief muttering the phrase for female dog on more than one occasion. Alexandre Desplat’s wonderful score is like the musical manifestation of Japanese culture. Isle of Dogs is pure animated eyeball ecstasy and Wes Anderson’s return to stop-motion animation is easily one of the best of the year.
© 2018 Chris Sawin