In Isle of Dogs, man’s best friend is under attack. Even if you don’t own a dog or love somebody else’s, even if you prefer cats to canines or want no pets at all, Wes Anderson’s new film is a joy to behold. Couldn’t we all use a smidgen of joy right now?
Twenty years in the future in make-believe Megasaki City, Japan, the long-time Mayor is running for re-election against a Scientist candidate. The cat-loving Mayor has whipped up the citizens into a state of frenzied fear: dog flu is in danger of spreading to the human population, and the Mayor plans to save the day by shipping all canines to Trash Island. His Scientist opponent claims he is six months away from a vaccine-cure, but the Mayor disparages his claim and makes a showy “sacrifice” of sending off the first canine, a guard-dog/companion to his ward and young nephew. Spots is ceremoniously flown across the river and unceremoniously dumped on the garbage heap of an island–in a locked cage with no key. All other dogs soon end up there, too. Six months later nephew Atari steals a small plane and crash lands on Trash Island. In all that time, not a single adult has tried to rescue a beloved pooch, but 12-year-old Atari is fearless and determined to find his. The furry islanders rally around the boy and lead him to a locked cage containing a skeleton and a dog tag. Spots appears to be dead. Or, what if he isn’t? In the company of his four-legged acquaintances, Atari begins a journey to discover the truth, a quest that will ultimately decide the fate of all dogs in Megasaki.
Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s first film since The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), which took home the Golden Globe for Best Picture and was nominated for numerous Oscars, winning several. As imaginative as that film was, its entire cast was of the human variety, and I generally prefer grown-up films to animation. But times they are-a changin’. Not only is this new film for and friendly to grown-ups, but it’s got an irresistible mix of dogs voiced by actors like Bryan Cranston (Chief, a stray), Liev Schreiber (Spots), Scarlett Johansson (Nutmeg, a husky-voiced former show dog), Bill Murray (Boss, the former mascot of a local baseball team), Tilda Swinton (Oracle, the only dog who can understand TV and predict things that will subsequently happen) and the list goes on. Not long ago, the term Stop-motion Animation meant nothing to me. Now I’m a big fan. The dogs in this film wouldn’t be nearly as appealing in computer-generated form as they are as “puppets” that were painstakingly created and then moved on their way, frame by frame by frame. As for the people puppets, they’re pretty irresistible, too, including a minor character like Assistant Scientist Yoko-ono, voiced by–you guessed it!–Yoko Ono.
The plot has more story threads than I’ve described. The dogs, of course, have their own threads. The Mayor is corrupt and not just because he’s a cat person. (Girl Scout’s honor: I still like cats, even though my first dog persuaded me to permanently switch my allegiance.) The mayor’s corruption extends beyond his cat-fixation. It extends to the dog flu itself and all the way to murder. The dry humor in the movie caps the waves of melancholy, such as this funny bite towards the end: the narrator, in a voice over, says “Graft and political corruption were reduced to sustainable, acceptable levels.” By then, the Mayor has won the election, confessed to his crimes, and been sent off to prison. About that election: the Mayor got over 98% of the vote, with less than 2% going to the deceased Scientist candidate.(How did that happen? All I’ll say is that a sushi chef can work wonders with his simple ingredients.) I couldn’t help but think of Putin’s recent re-election, when his only real competition was from the candidate who was barred from running. Or of Egyptian President el-Sisi, re-elected last week. His only opponent was one of his biggest supporters, a politician who made no effort to challenge him. Earlier in the year, a string of much stronger candidates were arrested or forced to withdraw.
Is Isle of Dogs a perfect film? I’ve seen some criticisms scattered about like dog droppings a few careless masters have failed to clean up. Let me reach into my pocket for my own pooper-scooper bag. Some complain there are no English subtitles for the Japanese-speaking characters. (I had no trouble following the storyline, plus an English-speaking translator–voiced by Frances McDormand– inserts herself at key times.) Some have suggested that it’s culturally insensitive to have an American exchange student (Tracy, voiced by Greta Gerwig) lead the charge at the high school newspaper to investigate the Mayor. Me, I choose to look at the Big Picture. It’s an animated dog movie by a talented filmmaker with an inventive style all his own. It has a big heart and not a lick of mean spiritedness in its portrayal of Japan and Japanese culture. Each scene is meticulously executed and beautiful to look at, even when the setting is rat-infested Trash Island and the dogs–some injured, some filthy, some undernourished–are scavenging for food among the piles of rubbish. I choose to give Isle of Dogs my unconditional love.
My dog Dexter is curled at my feet while I write. He looks a lot like Spots–without the spots and without the pink snout and blue eyes–even though Dexter is a Goldendoodle and Spots, I’ve read, is supposed to be something called a short-haired Oceanic Speckle-eared Sport Hound. Most likely your dog or your friends’ or neighbors’ dogs resemble at least one of the pooches trying to survive on Trash Island. And while Atari is a hero who helps save the dogs, the dogs help save Atari and set him on his future life path. (See the film to find out what that is.) Spots is a hero, but so is Chief, the stray who never wanted to answer to a master, but who realizes a change of heart could be mutually beneficial. All the dogs we meet seem to be heroes, each in his or her inimitable way. Glamorous Nutmeg is also a role model. “Show dog doesn’t describe who I really am,” she tells Chief.
Wes Anderson started making this movie more than two years ago. He’s said he didn’t have any political agenda in mind, but it’s funny how a good story, even if it’s complete make-believe, has a way of touching on some important truths. Politics corrupt. Unconditional love heals. If we really want to “drain the swamp,” are Sex, Lies and Vindictive Tweets the best way to go about it? Maybe we need to give our country to the dogs–and to the children. It’s they who will inherit the Earth.
“Who are we and who do we want to be?” A line from Isle of Dogs.