Wes Anderson Barks Up The Wrong Tree In 'Isle of Dogs'
By Andrea Thompson
Nobody does whimsy like Wes Anderson, but even he may be overextending himself a bit with “Isle of Dogs,” which is essentially the story of a boy and his beloved pet, albeit with a series of twists only Anderson could give us. For example, we are informed early on that all dogs will speak in their native language, with the non-English speaking humans conveniently having translators for important moments. Voiced by white actors.
The beginning is charming enough, something like a stop-motion anime with a bit of Miyazaki, all blended with Anderson's signature sensibilities. The story begins by hilariously telling of how dogs and humans once fought a war against each other, with a boy samurai saving the canines just as they were about to be obliterated. Afterwards, the four-legged fighters settled into the loving companions they became, which makes them vulnerable to the events of the film.
20 years in the future, dogs in Japan have begun to suffer from diseases that people fear could spread to the human population, so Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) and his minions whip the population into anti-dog frenzy and decide to exile man's best friends to a trash island, where life is grim and food is scarce. Six months later, the mayor's 12-year-old nephew Atari (Koyu RankiN) crash lands on the island in a rickety stolen plane to search for his beloved Spots (Liev Schreiber), who was the first to be sent there. Touched by his devotion, a group of dogs decide to help him, with Chief (Bryan Cranston) the only stray among them, reluctantly tagging along.
Naturally, it is Chief and Atari who are separated from the rest of the group, with Chief slowly but surely bonding with Atari. But as that bond grows, it becomes clear there's some pretty dark ideas just barely underneath the surface about just what dogs, and thus we, are expected to be. All the dogs miss their owners, and a dog is seen as incomplete if he doesn't have a master. It's rather unpleasant for all this appreciation to be firmly accompanied by a belief in the value of absolute subservience. Even movies like “Lady and the Tramp” and “Homeward Bound” featured canine characters who were devoted to their humans, but they still had far more going on with them than that, not to mention personalities that weren't firmly rooted in servitude.
As the film goes on, the whimsy eventually collapses in on itself somewhat, even if it never loses its creativity and humor. But the thing about the best of Anderson's films, as well as the directors who clearly influenced this one, was that the quirks enhanced the characters rather than overwhelming them. Anderson mentions that the cycle of life is fragile, but everything seems resolved a bit too easily. Any messages about how humans view themselves and how often that view clashes with the viciousness we routinely inflict is mostly lost, typically in the battle against...not so much evil, more like the day-to-day details and common tragedies that can grind down the best of us.
The women are also given somewhat short shrift, with Scarlett Johansson's Nutmeg especially feeling like a throwaway role whose only job is to demonstrate her fondness for the canine hero and display her showdog tricks. The human women are mainly translators and sidekicks, with only Greta Gerwig's Tracy Walker, a crusading student journalist, being the only really active one. But even that is somewhat less enjoyable since it makes her into something of a white savior. It's especially egregious to see her character urging a scientist, voiced by a mostly silent Yoko Ono, to take action against injustice. And as others have pointed out, we are not exactly in a position to lecture the Japanese about internment camps.
None of this is enough to make “Isle of Dogs” bad, but it is enough to dim the enjoyment quite a bit, even with those adorable puppies.