Isle of Dogs movie review: The most distressing film of Wes Anderson’s career
Isle of Dogs
Director - Wes Anderson
Cast - Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Greta Gerwig, Scarlett Johansson, Ken Watanabe, Frances McDormand, Konichi Nomura
Rating - 3/5
It is said that only a handful of working American filmmakers can demand final cut on their movies and Wes Anderson -- the director of Isle of Dogs -- is one of them. The others, depending on whom you believe, include David Fincher - who refused to release The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in India because he wouldn’t allow the CBFC to butcher it - and Woody Allen - who did not allow the CBFC to put an anti-smoking warning on Blue Jasmine. Most directors would simply agree to the cuts and move on, but most directors wouldn’t have that choice. To have final cut is to have absolute authority over your film. And of all the directors working today, none is as painstakingly deliberate about his movies as Anderson.
He has such a unique way in which he perceives the world - he sees it for the cruel place that it is, he understands the complexities of humanity, but his films cut through the nonsense with such an overwhelming innocence. He gazes upon the world as a child would, full of curiosity and wonder, and enough coping mechanisms in place to make sense of it all. But in Isle of Dogs, he further distances himself from our pettiness and our evilness, and in doing so, observes us in the most simplistic terms, too far away to let the greys influence the harsh truth -- there are good people and there are bad. That’s about it.
In Isle of Dogs, he filters our world through a dog’s eyes, arguably the most objective perspective possible. It isn’t his first animated film - that was 2009’s Fantastic Mr Fox, which was replaced as my favourite Wes Anderson film only by 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. However, it’s another in a small list of animated movies to have been directed by predominantly live-action filmmakers. Others include Zack Snyder (The Legend of the Guardians), Gore Verbinski (Rango), Charlie Kaufman (Anomalisa) and Tim Burton (Frankenweenie).
Which brings us to a problematic myth that must be busted before we continue. Animation is not a genre, it is a medium. And simply because a film is animated doesn’t mean that it is suitable for children. Sure, there are several ways in which one could interpret Isle of Dogs but I saw it as the darkest, most gut-wrenchingly distressing film Anderson has ever made.
On paper, it’s a story about a distant future Japan, whose entire dog population has been infected by a virus. The authoritarian mayor of the land passes a decree than banishes all the dogs to a nearby island, where they will live with each other and away from the general populace - the ‘violent, intimidating and unsanitary’ creatures that they are.
Six months later, a 12-year-old boy named Atari - who had been taken under his guardianship by the mayor - arrives on ‘Trash Island’, to search for his missing dog. Together with a pack of canines played by perennial Anderson players - Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban - and the newest member of the troupe, Bryan Cranston, Atari goes on an epic, Kurosawa-inspired quest to locate Spots, his pal.
That, in essence, is the story we see. And based simply on this premise, the film is perfectly fine viewing for adults and children alike. But it’s impossible to ignore the real-life parallels that Anderson is drawing here. In his own unique way, without being too obvious about it and like Duncan Jones and Taika Waititi before him, he’s made a movie about Donald Trump, about disenfranchisement and division.
Mayor Kobayashi is Trump’s stand-in, and perhaps even a pointed manifestation of dictatorship of all sorts, considering the very Nuremberg rally-ish speeches he delivers. The dogs are the Jews, or the refugees, or illegal immigrants - all considered too ‘dirty’ to be allowed to mingle with the civilised populace, the ‘pure breeds’. And Trash Island - and this was the saddest realisation of them all - is a concentration camp, a place where the ‘undesirables’ are sent to die, huddled together with no means of escape.
Like most of Anderson’s movies, it’s a difficult one to latch onto emotionally - his films tend to be rather distant, more immaculately designed than relatable. Isle of Dogs is a typically strange Anderson film, not his best work, but certainly a worthy entry into his singular filmography.
Watch the Isle of Dogs trailer here