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Saturday, November 17, 2018

Director Report Card: Wes Anderson (2018)

9. Isle of Dogs

Dogs do not have the best history in Wes Anderson's films. Poor Buckley the Beagle is squished by a car in “The Royal Tenenbaums.” A three legged hound is struck with a newspaper in “The Life Aquatic.” Guard dogs are knocked unconscious, or possibly poisoned, in “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Most traumatizing, poor little Snoopy was killed on-screen with a stray arrow in “Moonrise Kingdom.” (To show the director has no pet bias, he also depicted a house cat getting tossed out a window in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”) Despite this history of canine slaughter, Anderson wanted to assure the world that he really loves dogs. It's right there in the title of his newest feature, his second film made with stop-motion animation. “Isle of Dogs'” title is a pun, which took me far too long to get. The director's latest was met with critical praise and criticism earlier in the year.

In a near future Japan, a strange virus has swept through the islands' dog population. Amid fears that this “snout flu” could spread to a human population, all canines are exiled from Japan. Every dog is placed on a trash-covered small island. The dogs have created their own society there, fighting for scraps. A stray named Chief leads a pack of quirky dogs, trying to survive. That's when they see a human boy crash a home-made aircraft on the island. His name is Atari Kobayashi, the adopted son of Kenji Kobayashi, the politician and corporate leader that pushed the dog ban through. Atari is looking for Spots, the dog guardian that was granted to him after his family died. Though they can not understand each other, Atari and Chief's pack work together to find Spots. Meanwhile, intrigue builds in Japan, controversy surrounding Atari's actions.

The visual symmetry present in Wes Anderson's work is so well known, that it's practically a meme by this point. Set entirely in an artificial world, “Isle of Dogs” allows Anderson a chance to totally indulge his visual quirks. This is, in many ways, a gorgeous film. The first image that comes to mind is a scene of the dogs, hiding in a cave made of glass bottles. The canines are silhouetted against walls of brilliant colors, light shining through them. That's just the first moment that comes to mind. Another fantastic scene involves Chief and Atari being separated from the rest of the pack, who end up going through a mechanized trash disposal plant. That Anderson-esque style, so hard to describe but immediately recognizable when seen, could not be more apparent in that moment.

Compared to “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” whose style was undeniable but not especially memorable, “Isle of Dogs” is brimming with personality. Take a look at the maquettes used to bring the characters to life. Both the humans and dogs have faces full of quirky attributes. Atari's teeth are jagged, not the uniform smile you usually see in animation. The American transfer student, and Atari's biggest fan, has a head full of frizzy blonde hair. Each of the dogs have elements unique to them. Like piercing blue eyes, descriptive tags on their collars or bodies, or notably pink snouts. You can tell a lot about the characters just by looking at their faces. I guess it shouldn't be surprising that a director as detail orientated as Anderson would shove so much information into his cast's designs.

Of course, Anderson's symmetry doesn't end with his visual approach. “Isle of Dogs” has a script partially cut in two. The story of Atari's adventure on the titular island plays out at the same time as the events on the mainland, as different forces try to support him or hinder his mission. The story splinters from there, with Chief and Atari going in separate directions from the rest of the pack. Yet “Isle of Dogs” never looses its fleet-footed, quirky sense of humor. Such as in scenes involving the robotic dog minions the villains send after the heroes, a ludicrous element that just gets funnier the more the movie builds on it. Or that trademark of Anderson's humor, his awkward and dryly funny dialogue. The dogs talk in the same manner as Anderson's usual human characters, speaking in precise sentences about gossip and past jobs.

As funny as “Isle of Dogs” is, it's also a deeply melancholic film. As he usually does, the director weaves in his dry comedy with themes about loneliness and the difficulty of connecting with people. A major theme in “Isle of Dogs” is loyalty. The Japanese setting wasn't picked just because Anderson really likes it, though that doubtlessly played a big role in his choice. The film directly compares a dog's loyalty to a samurai's. Following the death of his family, Atari was paired with Spots. When he first talks to the dog, his words make the animal cry. Later, Spots admits he loves the boy very much. Atari returns that loyalty later when he seeks Spots out. The film extends the idea of a “boy and his dog” story into some very unusual places but the central idea – that one would lay down his life for the other – remains intact. And is as touching as it always is.

Of course, love is not always easily gained. Opposed to the other dogs in his pack, all of whom came from loving homes, Chief was a stray. He feels ostracized from the others because of this, though they rarely seem to mind. A heartbreaking moment has him relating a time he was briefly adopted, which quickly ended due to his tendency to bite. This is a fairly direct example of how some people push affection away, without even really realizing it. Yet acts of kindness – an old woman sharing some hibachi chili, a boy giving a dog a bath and a biscuit – can reach through that defensiveness. Other “strays” appear in the story. Such a pack of deformed dogs, former experimental test subjects that have literally been tossed away like trash. The other dogs fear they are cannibals but, once you're familiar with them, they deserve love just as much as any other living thing.

In the wake of “Isle of Dog's” release, a controversy arose over the film. Many complained that the film's approach to Japanese culture was fetishistic and diminishing, an example of a white filmmaker treating a whole country as nothing but an exotic fantasy land. “Isle of Dogs” definitely feels like a film made by an American Japanophile. (Or “weeb,” if we're being crude.) The film makes sure to check-off many cultural cliches about Japan: Sushi, samurai, Shinto temples, robots, woodcuts, sumo, haiku, some minor nods towards anime. Anderson stops just shy of including a kaiju. Anderson's handling of the location probably could've been more nuanced. This is definitely the work of an outsider, looking in at a world as an exotic location. Yet “Isle of Dog's” world is also a fantasy, clearly not set in our world or any existing world, so it's equally difficult to take accusations of cultural appropriation too seriously.

This crowd has also criticized another element of the film. All the Japanese characters speak in unsubtitled Japanese. This is obviously a deliberate choice that connects with the film's thematic concerns. Naturally, a dog and a human can actually understand each other. There's always a wall of translation separating them. There is a device that seemingly can translate from human-to-dog but the audience never sees it work. That absolute clarity is never guaranteed between the characters makes the loyalty and love they show to each other even more significant. Not totally understanding but loving anyway. This is made clear in a key sequence near the end, where a heartbreaking and touching remains untranslatable.

As with his live action joints, Anderson and his team assemble a phenomenal cast. For the voice of the main pack of dogs, he mostly calls upon regular players of his. Edward Norton is hilariously nit-picky as Rex, the most democratic of the dogs. Bill Murray is nicely muted as Boss, the most cautious of the main dogs. The (ironically) catty Duke is perfectly suited to Jeff Goldblum's typically eccentric delivery. Bob Balaban's King has a pampered side but mostly functions as a calming force for the pack. As Chief, Bryan Cranston – who, least we forget, has some voice-over experience – projects a gruff side that slowly defrosts as the story progresses. He ultimately becomes an unlikely but lovable hero.

Being such a high caliber project, Anderson is able to fill even the smaller roles with recognizable names. Greta Gerwig, who has somehow never worked with Anderson before, is fantastically determined and prickly as Tracy Walker, the exchange student. Tilda Swinton is also impressively funny in the small role of Oracle, a pug that claims she can predict the future but merely watches TV. Harvey Keitel has a small but important role, bringing some real sorrow to the part of a bereaved elder dog. It's a shame that Scarlett Johansson wasn't given more to do, in a cute but simply functionary role as the former show dog that Chief falls in love with. Even a simple translator role is played by an immediately recognizable Frances McDormand. Being unsubbed, the Japanese cast doesn't feature too many familiar names, though Yoko Ono appears as a character named Yoko Ono. And, of course, Ken Watanabe is there.

Alexandre Desplat returns to score the film, his fourth collaboration with Anderson. Drawing upon traditional Japanese instruments, such as taiko drums and fue, he creates a score that sounds darker than his usual works. There's a percussion driven urgency in much of Desplat's music here, adding to the film's overall sense of tension. This is aided by ominous vocals and battle-ready bugles. Anderson doesn't leave as much room here for his usual sixties Britpop song picks. Only The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band's “I Won't Hurt You” is used, though the soft and meaningful song makes an impression. The score also quotes several classic Japanese films, using portions from “Seven Samurai” and “Drunken Angel's” scores.

I was probably predisposed to love “Isle of Dogs.” Wes Anderson has made some of my favorite films. Naturally, some of my favorite people have been dogs. And I'll admit I went through a bit of a weeb stage myself. I understand why some people have a problem with the film but I think it's a shame that the controversy overshadowed the actual movie to a degree. It's a frequently hilarious, oddly touching, and visually gorgeous motion picture. Though awash in Anderson's trademarks and undeniably the work of his distinctive voice, it still feels noticeably different from his previous eight features, providing a more compassionate outlook. Hey, I guess he really does love dogs after all. [Grade: A-]

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