Isle of Dogs

Before we venture into potential spoilers, a quick synopsis of my response to Isle of Dogs: for a pretty clear allegory to the Holocaust with implications toward today's political and social climate, it still manages to be a disarmingly charming adventure.  Isle of Dogs is a visual sonnet to our canine pals (say the movie's title several times fast and you'll see the overarching theme of the film has been hiding in plain sight), and it's somewhat disappointing that people had to go in and be the weak part of the movie.  Overall, I recommend the movie as a visual treat and an opportunity to bask in some new quirkiness from Anderson, but it unfortunately falls short of being a masterpiece (pun intended).

Everything from here on should be considered potential spoiler territory, whether any spoilers actually appear or not.

I think everyone has a Wes Anderson film that is their gateway into the rest of his filmography, that first film where you really get him and his work. I came to Anderson very late, having found myself left on the outside by films like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, and Fantastic Mr. Fox.  I could not figure out why Anderson's films were so popular among my circle of friends.  My breakthrough was with The Grand Budapest Hotel, where Anderson's many tics finally crystallized into a clear cinematic language for me.  As a result, I felt prepared to walk into the theater and enjoy Anderson's newest foray into stop-motion animation.

And for the most part I did.  But there were a number of aspects of the film I found lacking, partly with message and partly with story construction.  Ultimately, it comes down to a case of the dog stars of the film shining while wishing we could exile all the human characters (even the heroic ones) to Trash Island.

The role of Trash Island was played by New Jersey.
The quick synopsis: The ruling class of Japan are all cat people and spurred to wreak vengeance on dogs, with whom their ancestors fought an ancient war, resulting in a peace in which the dogs agreed to serve human masters.  In near future Japan, Megasaki City Mayor Kobayashi, part of that line of cat lovers, maneuvers the public into fearing dogs due to a pair of illnesses that have started to run rampant within the species, convincing them to back exiling all dogs to Trash Island.  The dogs try to subsist there, missing their masters, not knowing that Kobayashi has an even more heinous fate planned for them.  Kobayashi's ward, Atari, builds a plane and crashes into Trash Island in search for his former dog protector, Spots.  Atari is rescued by a pack of alpha dogs who decide to help him find Spots.  While they search, Kobayashi takes his political opponent, Professor Watanabe (surprisingly not played by Ken Watanabe) off the table and thwarts the professor's efforts to introduce a cure to the dogs' ailments he created with his assistant, Yoko Ono (surprisingly played by Yoko Ono).  As always, an annoying American (Greta Gerwig as Tracy Walker) injects herself into the middle of all this, and hijinks ensue.

She even looks annoying.
In a vacuum, this seems like quite the romp, and it largely is.  Sadly, the film drags anytime we leave the dogs of Trash Island and are forced to catch up with the humans, especially the incredibly grating Tracy.  Many reviews fault Tracy for being yet another white savior character.  My issue is that there wasn't a scene she appeared in that I wasn't hoping for some terrible death to occur to her.  Perhaps that was on purpose, with Anderson wanting us to realize how incredibly annoying people with white savior complexes are, but I somehow doubt it.  There's nothing in his treatment of the character that suggests that he didn't intend for us to love her, and that's unfortunate, because she's fairly unlovable.

To a lesser extent, the other human characters, even Atari, could have been removed from the film and I probably would not have minded.  It's unclear which side of the line between capturing the idiosyncrasies of a complex people and wallowing in stereotypes Anderson's Japanese characters fall, but either way they're very close to that line.

This is a very Bill Murray scene.
The dogs, on the other hand, are worth the price of admission.  The alpha pack are an absolute hoot.  Bryan Cranston's Chief is the crusty star of the film, a stray who learns to love being with humans during his time with Atari.  Edward Norton plays Rex, the clear thinker who keeps trying to exert leadership over the alpha pack, only to be reminded every time (by Chief) that they are a democratic coalition.  Jeff Goldblum's Duke is, for me, the breakout character of the film, a sociable gossip who always comes up with interesting bits of plot information that he's heard from the grapevine despite us never seeing him socialize with anyone other than the alpha pack.  Bob Balaban is quietly effective as the very sensitive King.  And Bill Murray's Boss is essentially Bill Murray in canine form.

I love dogs that get this mesmerized look in front of the tube.
The alpha pack is joined by a stellar cast of supporting dogs, including Scarlett Johansson, who brings sexy to any role she plays regardless of species, as the always slyly smiling Nutmeg, the foxy hound that breaks through Chief's icy exterior.  Liev Schreiber is Spots, who can best be described as GI Joe as a dog.  F. Murray Abraham brings his deep resonance to voice Jupiter, the wizened old St. Bernard sage of Trash Island.  And Tilda Swinton plays the other popular breakout candidate, Oracle, the pooch who is all-seeing due to her love of television.  These characters get far too little screen time compared to how enjoyable they are to watch.

Look at that amazing depth of image.
Technically, the film is a joy to watch.  The stop motion work in for the most part on point, with some characteristic side scrolling scenes that will bring back memories of Fantastic Mr. Fox.  A really nice touch that Anderson introduces is the use of traditional animation for any images seen on video screens, which gives a nice contrast to the three dimensional feel of the rest of the film.  The use of cotton balls to depict major melees was both cute and effective.  And there's a sushi-making scene that has to be viewed to truly be enjoyed.

In terms of message, Isle of Dogs muddles things a little bit, perhaps on purpose.  The clearest resonance of the film's plot is to the Holocaust, with the focus on first stoking mass hysteria and hatred resulting in the ghettoization of an entire group, followed up by the cruel medical experimentation on them, eventually leading to a "final solution".  There are other elements here, though.  Taking advantage of disease to take away agency of a group and refusing to put resources toward a potential cure reminds one a bit too much of the AIDS crisis.  The medical experiments and intolerance of a subjugated group speaks more than a little to the historical experience of African Americans, though going that route soon becomes uncomfortable any time dogs talk about missing their masters.  And of course, there are obvious ties to today's media-enabled intolerance stoked by leaders wishing to use it for their own purposes.  It's a little disconcerting that so many large scale examples of potential real-world analogues can so easily be identified.  Such is humanity, our cruelty and our compassion simultaneously knowing no bounds.

Isle of Dogs is worth spending the time to watch and think about and discuss afterward.  I've no doubt that it will be nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, and it may just win depending on what its competition is like.  It's highly imperfect, and that should be recognized.  It shouldn't be exiled to Trash Island.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is a dirty cat lover.

Embrace the feels.
JL Franke is a fan of both hard science fiction and hard fantasy.  He has been collecting comics for over 40 years and has been an on-and-off active member of online fandom for 25.  Those interested can find other writings at his personal blog,  When not geeking out, you may find him at a baseball park or cheering on his favorite college and pro football teams.  In his spare time, he is chief scientist for a research and development laboratory somewhere in the Washington, DC greater metropolitan area.

Isle of Dogs Isle of Dogs Reviewed by JL Franke on Tuesday, March 27, 2018 Rating: 5
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