Sunday, April 15, 2018

Isle of Dogs


The new Wes Anderson film Isle of Dogs is fanciful enough to be a story that one character might tell another in one of Anderson's other films. It is easy to imagine Sam and Suzy killing an afternoon in Moonrise Kingdom with the tale of a young boy, the dog he seeks to find, and the evil uncle keeping them apart for his own ends. Anderson returns here to the stop-motion animation he used in Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the result is an illustrated book that has come to life in some alternate universe. Anderson's eye for visual detail serves the material well, as scenes from television broadcasts, operating rooms, and (stylized) dog fights are animated with a precision that gives texture and depth to the world. That's to say nothing of the voice cast. In the near future a Japanese city is threatened by an outbreak of "dog flu". Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), whose family has controlled the region for centuries, proclaims that all dogs will be collected and quarantined on "Trash Island" as a public health measure. The Mayor's young ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) makes his way to the island in search of his loyal dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). That much story is about all that Anderson needs really. We're with Atari and the pack of dogs who find him - led by Bryan Cranston as the defiant stray Chief - as they traverse the larger than initially thought island. Chief and his pack bicker amongst themselves over whether and in what manner to help Atari, with Edward Norton's Rex especially funny for his insistence on parliamentary procedure. Back on the mainland an exchange student named Tracy (Greta Gerwig) determines to expose the city's corruption and rescue the dogs. Other dogs are played by Anderson regulars such as Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Tilda Swinton with an easy sense of ensemble that probably belies the circumstances under which the actors were recorded.

Isle of Dogs can best be read as a sort of parable about empathy and the dangers of othering. It has been described as Anderson's most "political" film, but while the relevance to real-world events is there the timing of the release creates a context that perhaps wasn't planned for. Empathy is an idea that transcends countries and cultures. While it is fair to ask why Anderson chose a Japanese setting for Isle of Dogs, the film is aware of what it's doing in a way that Mayor Kobayashi is not. All of the human Japanese characters speak their own language without subtitles. The translations are diegetic, mostly provided in scene by an interpreter character (Frances McDormand) or displayed as words on a device. We are always aware we're watching a film taking place in another culture, and Anderson doesn't try to explain or caricature anything about Japan or to assert the superiority of one culture over another. We can't totally divine Anderson's intentions of course, but it is not unreasonable to imagine he set Isle of Dogs in another culture to emphasize the universality of his central theme. (Good companion reading for Isle of Dogs might be this much-shared blog post.) Wes Anderson will no doubt return to the live-action world in future projects, with all of the familiar visual flourishes and characters caught in the nooks and crannies of their melancholy. But Isle of Dogs reveals both an unfamiliar kindness and a moral bent in Anderson not much seen before, making his future work not yet imagined to feel both wanted and quite necessary.

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