Review of “Isle of Dogs.” Directed by Wes Anderson.
“Isle of Dogs” is one of the many animated features released in recent years that might attract children through clever visuals but whose story is pitched to adults, especially of the socially aware variety. And Wes Anderson’s stop-motion technique, which he employed in his earlier but less politically charged “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” does bring his characters, especially the canine ones, to vivid life. But the real reason to see it is the story.
Which real-life atrocity does the movie most closely reflect: the genocidal 19th-century campaigns against Native Americans, the Holocaust, or the current Trump administration’s passion for deporting immigrants? All of these find an echo in the tale of a cat-loving mayor of a mythical Japanese metropolis who conspires to infect all of his city’s dogs with a communicable disease as a pretext to exile them to a garbage-clotted island off the coast, with an eye to eventual mass extermination. When a young boy, the adopted son of the mayor, undertakes a quest to find his banished canine friend, the beleaguered dogs find a ray of hope.
The film effectively depicts the mob mentality that greases the wheels for the attacks on the poor pets. The screams of the crowds being manipulated by the mayor’s suasions could be attendees at the Nuremburg rallies or Trump supporters wearing “MAGA” hats at one of his red-meat frenzies. Although the film was well into production before the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, it had the good fortune to capture that tragedy’s zeitgeist by depicting students as leaders of the resistance, the last stubborn advocates for the dogs while the rest of society walks in lockstep in support of speciescide. Unfortunately, Anderson chooses a blonde American exchange student to be the ringleader of the movement, as if no Japanese student would be smart or energetic enough to assume that role. It’s a dissonant note in an otherwise engaging film.
Anderson’s animation effectively provides a window into the inner lives of the dogs and shows them as the intelligent, emotional creatures that real dogs are—albeit, unlike real dogs, able to speak with each other in complex English. Anderson doesn’t sugarcoat the terrors of creatures living in literally a dog-eat-dog world. One of the leading canine characters, a tough stray, has a gaping red wound on his shoulder. Another loses an ear in a fight over fresh garbage. Anderson depicts heartbreaking fear and bewilderment in the eyes of a once-beloved pet as he is locked in a cage and carried away from his home to a world where even fighting for survival might not save him.
“Isle of Dogs” isn’t all doom and gloom. The dystopian story is leavened by a bit of humor, if often of the gallows variety, such as a dog, landing on the island in a cage that won’t open, taking comfort that the bars will protect him from the feared cannibalistic dogs. “On the other hand, I’ll probably die of starvation or thirst,” he muses. The movie is stocked with famous actors, and it’s fun to try to identify the voices of Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johannsson, Frances McDormand and others—and, since this takes place in Japan, why not Yoko Ono? And I give nothing away by revealing that the film ends on an uplifting note.
The film’s setting in Japan was, according to Anderson, intended to be an homage to legendary director Akira Kurosawa and not an indictment of the Japanese attitude toward dogs (which, I can state from personal experience, is perhaps even more besotted than Americans’). It does provide the film a distinctive look and an exotic feel, which distances the story for Western viewers. Transporting the dogs from Manhattan to a dismal island in the East River perhaps would have hit too close to home.
If you can honestly say “I love dogs,” see “Isle of Dogs.” (Get the pun yet?) Even if you can’t, this movie is worth a look. If not playing at a local theater by the time this review appears, it soon could be streaming on a device near you.