Lost on Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs
The director's new movie is gorgeous to look at. Otherwise, it's a mess.
Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson's latest film, begins promisingly enough: A gorgeous mural of dogs living untamed in a canine utopia is interrupted by the appearance of a real dog in the foreground. He delivers a sober history of the longstanding enmity between dogs and the human Kobayashi clan, and relates how dogs got domesticated and reduced to pets. This stylized introduction fast-forwards into a Cold War-inflected future in which a forbidding mayor of the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki responds to an epidemic affecting canines by banishing them to "Trash Island." He is — you guessed it — a Kobayashi. And partial to cats.
The mayor's 12-year-old ward Atari — recently orphaned — decides to try to rescue his guard dog Spots. After his plane crashes, he's rescued by a gang of five dogs who help him evade his imperial uncle's rescue team.
What's neat about the movie is that it's at times so dog-centric that human motivations remain almost hilariously obscure. Sometimes the effect is intriguing and pleasant: Atari speaks Japanese throughout the film (with no subtitles), but the dogs speak in American English. It forces you to try to read Atari the way dogs would. Like the film's other philosophical musings, it's an interesting experiment in half-alienation that doesn't ultimately deliver much. (That Atari's final speech does get translated sort of attenuates the film's commitment to defamiliarizing the human side of things.)
The pleasure of this movie is the quality of its visuals. The stylized section breaks, the incredible tableaus, the humor. It's a delight — at the level of the scene. Some bits are truly horrifying. Some are very funny. Add them up together, though, and you get a story so thin it practically goes up in smoke. Individual plot points are muddy enough that you'll find yourself afterwards trying to piece together what you just saw — was the villain actually evil, like his forebears, or a pawn? (And if the latter, whose? Cats seem to be the symbol for an enemy that never materializes.)
Those are macro-level complaints, but things break down locally too. It turns out one character's quest might have been spurred by a young female journalist's activist articles in her school newspaper. If I've understood that plot point correctly, this — motivating male characters — is the only concrete effect Tracy, the young journalist, achieved (beyond yelling at a female scientist mourning the murder of her partner and literal superior whose name — and I can't believe I'm typing this — is Yoko Ono. And played by her).
That said, it's a good thing, in the end, that Tracy turns out to have been relatively ineffective; otherwise the only American character in the film would also have been the savior.
This being a Wes Anderson film, its lovely stylistic borrowings are unevenly handled. Some work; others are culturally tone-deaf: One character gets quite literally whitewashed into respectability, and the Japanese — who were sent to internment camps by Americans — are shown here sending dogs to their rough equivalent in a kind of Cold War/WWII mashup.
Then there's the unfortunate gender breakdown. An island of some 750,000 dogs reduces narratively to five, all of them male. Their names are things like Rex and Duke, and if it seems at first like they're enjoying a healthy debate over how to jointly govern by consensus — returning to the utopia of the mural at the beginning — it turns out their squabbles over who's in charge are just a protracted joke on the fact their names all mean "Leader Dude." All that setup for a dad joke.
Ironically — with the exception of Chief, a stray — the other four are flat and forgettable enough that it would have been easy to make a couple of members of the rescue team female. Alas, that would sacrifice that excellent "who's in charge" gag. Result: Of the three female dogs allowed into this dog dystopia on Trash Island, two are there to be either literal or potential sperm receptacles. One gets lovingly called a bitch. (Get it?)
Things aren't much better at the level of plot. Neither the final confrontation nor its resolution make any sense, and the film — far from resolving the rather interesting tension it establishes between the "stray" and the four "pets" whose philosophical differences over the nature of a dog utopia structure the first part of the film — forgets all about the positions they staked out. Any insight it strove for stalls out at "dogs like biscuits." Threads of all kinds are dropped: We never find out why the stray is a stray or why his relations aren't. A truly horrifying spectacle gets cheerfully abandoned because the victim turned out to be a different dog than the one we cared about. The film's initial exploration of real and visceral horror gets papered over by solutions that are really quite surprisingly thin.
Because this film seems largely invested in masculine acts of selfless love, it's particularly strange that the film concludes with a male character confessing to his greatest flaw — his bursts of body-mangling violence — and minimizing it ("letting off steam" is the phrase) — while his female listener both absolves him and declares she's into him because he "isn't tame." That the character in question is played by Bryan Cranston, and that his "I bite" catchphrase seems to be a juvenile riff on Walter White's most famously misunderstood quote, "I am the one who knocks," rather neatly illustrates how oddly Anderson seems to understand the subtext of some of his source material.
Look, this is a gorgeous movie. I want to frame stills of the landscapes on Trash Island, and some moments are really quite moving. But taken as a whole, it has no idea what it's saying about violence, or humanity, or dogs, or cats, or empire, or politics, or society, or haikus. It's stylized and beautiful, and it'll probably make you feel very warmly toward dogs. Otherwise, though, it's a mess.