They growl and occasionally they howl, but the dogs don’t bark in Wes Anderson‘s stop-motion miracle “Isle of Dogs.” Instead, these beautifully scruffy puppet pooches, with uncannily expressive, liquid eyes, speak in clipped, droll, perfectly parsed English, debating plans of action democratically and relating heartfelt backstories with gruff, unsentimental candor. Consigned to Trash Island, which is exactly what it says it is, by the corrupt, dog-hating, cat-stroking Mayor of the nearby city of Megasaki, they roam in scavenging packs that are as riven with internal conflicts as they are with infectious ailments. “Dog flu” is rampant, as is “snout fever,” not to mention the despair-inducing homesickness of the Good Boy suddenly branded a Bad Dog. They sneeze a lot. But though they talk a big game about being alpha-dogs who don’t need anyone anymore, still they pine for the masters they loved and are looking for a chance to love again. To err is human; to forgive, canine.
The central pack, none of whom are exactly Crufts material when we meet them, comprises: Rex (Edward Norton), the de facto leader who constantly needs reminding that he’s not the leader; Boss (Bill Murray), the former mascot of a baseball team; King (Bob Balaban), the one-time spokesdog for local petfood manufacturer Doggy Chop; Duke (an unmistakable Jeff Goldblum), the affable gossip; and Chief, the only masterless stray in the gang, a scraggly, scarred black mutt played to perfection by Bryan Cranston who holds the whole heart of the film in the melancholic rasp of his voice. “I bite,” Chief reminds everyone periodically, and it’s as though it’s followed by “…therefore I am.” But each time he repeats it, there’s a little less conviction, a little less truculent, screw-you pride in the statement. Can this old dog be learning new tricks?
If he is, it’s because of a little boy, Atari (Koyu Rankin), who has crash landed on Trash Island. He speaks only Japanese which the dogs don’t understand and which is not subtitled, with Anderson finding ingenious methods, often involving Frances McDormand‘s editorializing interpreter, to translate the information he thinks we need. Language barrier notwithstanding, Atari enlists the pack’s help in tracking down his beloved pooch Spots (Liev Schreiber) which involves a lot of cartoon-style dogfights in dust clouds made, adorably, out of cushion stuffing.
Known reverently by the islander canines as “Dog Zero” because he was the first to be exiled, it turns out Spots was Atari’s “bodyguard.” The orphaned Atari is the adoptive nephew and presumptive heir of the evil Mayor, who is being assailed back in Megasaki by an increasingly vocal “Pro-Dog” revolutionary faction, led by frizzy-haired American exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig). Her citizen journalism exposes the real circumstances around the death of the leader of the opposition “Science Party” who had developed a serum that would cure all dog-borne diseases and thereby allow them back into the city.
So phew, yes, for a director so visually obsessed with symmetry and neatness (and this might genuinely be his most beautiful film), Anderson’s narrative could hardly be messier or more undisciplined. But then it’s difficult to tell if the story is the reason for the endlessly charming imagery, the sight gags, the puns and the poetry (in this world, a cleverly-deployed haiku can topple a corrupt regime) or if Anderson had to jankily reverse-engineer some story to justify the wonderful little curlicues he’d thought of separately.
Did the kindly lantern-jawed scientist (Akira Ito) who was working on a serum to cure dog-borne diseases really need to be killed via a strip of poisoned wasabi in his nighttime sushi bento box? Probably not, but it does give Anderson and his animators the license to include a ludicrously sumptuous stop-motion sushi-preparation montage — a minute or so of footage that took four animators and a “sushi consultant” two months to complete and was totally worth it. Did we need an entire convoluted mythology involving the cat-loving ruling dynasty to be narrated at us at breakneck speed in the film’s opening moments? Definitely not, but how else was Anderson going to shoehorn all those nods to kabuki theater and the Japanese woodblock art of the Edo period?
Do exchange students get to have dogs? Why did Chief’s life unfold so differently from that of his brother? How did Anderson get Harvey Keitel‘s best performance in years with a cameo that has just one brief soliloquy about canine cannibalism? These and many, many other questions remain unanswered, especially when your brain is too busy processing the dazzling, dense information overload fireworking through your optic nerve.
So let’s not quibble about kibble. The actual debate that “Isle of Dogs” is destined to stir up is not around narrative incoherence or the daring underuse of Tilda Swinton in a practically wordless role. It is of course the accusation of cultural appropriation, which on one level is an absolutely indefensible charge, being as there’s actually no reason that this story needs to be set in Japan other than it gives Anderson a whole new cultural coloring-box to root around in. And matters aren’t helped by the casting of exclusively white Hollywood stars in all the dog roles, when the dog roles are by far the best there are.
But on a far more immediate and visceral level, the meticulous dedication and joyous commitment Anderson displays to a set of aesthetics he clearly worships are to some extent self-justifying. In “The Grand Budapest Hotel” Anderson created a fictional Eastern European country in order to exploit a loose set of cultural and aesthetic associations without having them tied to pesky real-world history or geopolitics. And here he creates a fictional city in what might as well be the fictional country of Japanderson — the better to remythologize the myths that Kurosawa, Miyazaki and the whole Godzilla industry so brilliantly exported, and that have clearly intoxicated him so thoroughly. No one could come out of “Isle of Dogs” with a sense of disdain for Japanese culture: Anderson’s Japanophilia is as infectious as snout fever, and peculiarly reverent, without a shred of condescension.
Indeed, buried in amongst the surprisingly potent political commentary (the clash between demagogues and experts; the limits of democracy when decisiveness is needed; the value of journalism in the age of propagandist “fake news”) there is a further undercurrent about the value of outsider perspectives, and how much better we are when we blur the lines. It’s exemplified best by Alexandre Desplat‘s stunning score, which combines traditional Japanese taiko drums in a rolling, rumbling, semi-martial rhythm, with unexpectedly whimsical and inescapably Western-sounding instrumentation – saxophones and clarinets, even a little whistling. Like the film it envelopes and rounds out so lushly, the music is a meeting of mutually curious and mutually complementary worlds, and like the proud, resourceful brave and loyal dogs of this ‘Isle,’ even when they’re reunited with their masters and fetching sticks in time-honored tradition, neither is subservient: no one is anyone’s “pet.” As far as representation goes, the stunning, brimful, extraordinary “Isle of Dogs” can’t really be said to do anyone’s culture a disservice. Except cat lovers, who should probably mount a boycott. [B+]
Browse through all our coverage of the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival by clicking here.