Over the years I’ve made it known in various reviews of family movies that I kind of hate children. However, it should probably be known that my grumpiness does not end there, I also hate dogs! In fact I hate dogs way more than I dislike children, who will at least grow up to be something less annoying one day while dogs will always be dogs. I’ve never owned a dog even while I was younger and everything about owning one seems like a pain in the ass. You have to walk them everywhere, clean up all their shit, and listen to them bark all the time. I have no desire to own a cat either but that seems like a much more reasonable prospects as they can pretty much take care of themselves outside of feedings and litterbox cleaning. But really what annoys me about dogs is the way they seem to turn their owners into crazy people. The way some of these “dog lovers” talk they seem completely delusional about how much these animals care about them. They’ve got it in their heads that these creatures actually “love” them rather than that they’re doing what they’ve been trained to do over the centuries in order to get food from humans. All this is to say that when I learned that director Wes Anderson was going to follow up The Grand Budapest Hotel with a stop-motion animated movie about an island full of talking dogs I found myself groaning a little as I could easily picture how easily that could turn into cutesy nonsense, but Wes Anderson has made groan-inducing ideas work before so I was willing to give it a shot.
Wes Anderson’s films generally don’t take place in realistic universes even when he has regular actors in them but when he goes for animation he really goes all out and this is not an exception. The film takes place in an imagined near-future Japan where the dog population had become so out of control and afflicted by diseases that the mayor (Kunichi Nomura) signed an order to have all the dogs removed and sent to an uninhabited island filled with garbage and the first dog to go is his own family dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). From there we flash-forward and start following a group of dogs consisting of Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), and Chief (Bryan Cranston). Of those five Chief is kind of the odd ma… dog out as he was a stray dog before ending up on the island and has always rejected the notion that dogs should be obedient servants to humans. The action really kicks off when a twelve year old boy named Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), the adopted son of the aforementioned mayor Kobayashi, flies a small airplane to the Isle of Dogs in search of his beloved Spots and meets up with the film’s main group of canines who decide to help him out on his quest, which of course proves to be more dangerous than they expect.
Wes Anderson’s previous film to use stop-motion animation was of course his 2009 film Fantastic Mr. Fox, a movie that was generally liked by critics but was a box office disappointment. I think where the studio went wrong marketing that movie was that they hoped that it was going to cross over to the traditional family film market more than it did, which was probably a mistake because the central joke of that movie, showing animals talking and acting like yuppies, was kind of going to go over the heads of most young people. Personally, I liked that movie for the most part but that one joke it goes for over and over again did start to wear on me after a while and I ultimately think it’s a lesser Wes Anderson because of it. This follow-up also has some of that “animals talk like human hipsters” joke as well, especially when Chief interacts with a lady dog named Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), but there is a bit more going on in this one on top of that. The movie is a lot more interested in the ways that animals interact with humans than Fantastic Mr. Fox did, likely owing to the fact that this is about domestic rather than wild animals and it also comes up with more fantastical world-building owing to the fact that it’s set in this odd sort of dystopian Japan.
The Japan depicted in the film is of course a rather fantastical version of the country, in much the way that The Grand Budapest Hotel was set in a sort of pastiche of pre-war Europe rather than the actual nation of Hungary. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything intrinsically Japanese baked into this story about dogs being sent to islands, but Anderson’s fascination with the country clearly gives the movie a lot of its flavor. Some of the film’s logic about all of this is a bit inconsistent. A title card early on suggests that the film’s Japanese characters will speak entirely in their native language without subtitles unless translated by a third party, which is interesting but the movie so frequently finds exceptions to this rule that I kind of wonder why they bothered. It’s also a bit odd that Anderson chose to make all his dog characters into essentially American characters by giving them names like Spots and Duke and having them voiced by Americans even though they’re theoretically supposed to be Japanese dogs. The film also plays a bit fast and loose with how able certain characters, especially Atari are able to interact with these dogs and understand the human-like intelligence that Anderson has opted to give them.
I do wonder to some extent what Anderson is trying to say with this movie, if anything. If you look at it sideways you could see something of an allegory in it to the Trump era in that mayor Kobayashi is essentially deporting these dogs and claiming to be doing so for some semi-sensible reasons while actually just being prejudiced against them because of his association with an ancient cat-loving samurai clan. A lot of that is a bit in the background though and its foreground stories are a little more curious, namely Chief’s arc in which he rejects humanity only to then allow himself to become a servant to Atari in Spots’ place. I would think that if Anderson was trying to afford human-like intelligence and dignity to these dogs that this story of a dog coming to accept this role as a servant to a human. Maybe that’s supposed to be an allegory for “settling down” but the power dynamics of such a relationship is a bit different… or maybe that’s just the dog hater in me not finding this as cute as a normal person would.
Ultimately my final verdict on this comes down more to form than to message. I generally like Wes Anderson’s early films like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums the best, which are different from some of his later movies in that his style came more from film grammar, music selection, and acting choices than from elaborate set decoration and world-building and the more successful he gets the more he’s been enabled to make these heavily constructed films like The Life Aquatic and The Grand Budapest Hotel which feel increasingly detached from the real world. Now don’t get me wrong, I do still like those movies and admire their audacity but I do still kind of miss that other Wes Anderson that we haven’t really seen since Moonrise Kingdom. These stop-motion films are like that problem but turned up to eleven and are even further removed from the Wes Anderson I want. But I would probably be doing myself a disservice by pining for Wes Anderson to deliver what I want from him rather than enjoying what he’s actually interested in delivering and there’s plenty to enjoy in Isle of Dogs.
***1/2 out of Five