Sunday, September 16, 2018

Isle of Dogs (2018): A Review


Wes Anderson has always been a bit hit-and-miss for me. Sometimes, like with Moonrise Kingdom or The Grand Budapest Hotel, he manages to win me over to his self-consciously whimsical manner.  Other times, like with The Darjeeling Limited, he is far too consciously whimsical to the point of maddening.

Isle of Dogs, while visually impressive, is in the latter category of the Anderson oeuvre, one that is remote and more interested in how it looks than in how it makes one feel.

The film is divided into four parts (one of Anderson's many film traits): a Prologue, then The Little Pilot, The Search for Spots and Atari's Lantern.

Japan, not too-distant-future.  The evil six-term mayor/dictator of Megasaki, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) expels all dogs from Megasaki due to their overpopulation and diseases.

It is pointed out that the Kobayashis, who have had a firm hold over their district for centuries, are cat-lovers, their longstanding hatred for dogs having existed all these years.  Curiously, this detail seems irrelevant despite it being mentioned.

The first dog formally exiled to Trash Island is Spots (Liev Schriber), dog to Mayor Kobayashi's nephew/ward Atari (Koyu Rankin).

I'd like to ask why someone who hates dogs the way Mayor Kobayashi does would hire a dog to be his ward/successor's guard, but Anderson is too involved with how cute everything is to offer any answers.

Anyway, we see that I believe six months later the various dogs on Trash Island fight for scraps.  We focus on one pack: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray) and Chief (Bryan Cranston).  Chief is the most negative of the bunch: a stray who finds himself with this group of formerly elite dogs (one was a baseball team mascot, another a pet food commercial spokesman).

Image result for isle of dogsAtari crashes his little plane on Trash Island, determined to rescue Spots.  At first it is believed he is dead, but Rex notices that the corpse's tag reads 'Sports' not 'Spots', so the group, including a most reluctant man-averse Chief, help Atari begin The Search for Spots.

Mayor Kobayashi will stop at nothing to 'rescue' his ward and exterminate all dogs in his own 'final solution'. If it means ignoring and destroying proof that a cure for what ails the dogs has been found, so be it.  If it means assassinating Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito), head of the almost irrelevant opposition 'Science Party', so be it.

Atari, however, does not want to be rescued.  Playing stirring music from Seven Samurai, Atari will not be denied.  Eventually, a bond between Atari and Chief comes about, especially after finding that Chief, far from being black, is actually white...and Spots' brother!

Into this comes foreign-exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig).  She is the high school investigative reporter who rallies the students and citizens in a rebellion of sorts against Mayor Kobayashi and his sham elections and murderous plans.

It all comes to a head when the Trash Island dogs, warned of their impending mass killing, get to Megasaki to stop this.  In the end, all is well: Atari and Tracy begin a relationship, with Atari ending up the new mayor, Mayor Kobayashi having a change of heart but still getting locked up for his crimes along with his cohorts, including his right-hand man Major Domo (Akira Takayama), and Chief, now Atari's guard, resuming something of a romance with Nutmeg (Scarlett Johannson), the show-dog he met on Trash Island.

Image result for isle of dogs
In terms of visuals, Isle of Dogs is beautiful.  While it is mostly stop-motion animation, there also appear to be purely animated moments that make it visually splendid.

I imagine that one could enjoy Isle of Dogs if one put the movie on mute and just looked at it, impressed with the attention to detail in the dogs' fur.  That might make one miss out on Alexandre Duplat's score, which uses traditional Japanese music as a starting point.

However, the mute might also make one enjoy Isle of Dogs, as the movie ends up being quite boring.  I put this to Anderson and his writing collaborators: Roman Coppola, Coppola's cousin Jason Schwartzman, and Mayor Kobayashi himself, Kunichi Nomura.

I never lost the sense that they all thought they were being extremely clever in their script, but sometimes one can be too clever for their own good.  It reminds me of one of my mother's sayings, "That person is so smart that he/she is dumb", meaning that while the person is highly intelligent they also find it difficult to impossible to be relatable.  Such is the case with Isle of Dogs.

I could not shake the idea that Isle of Dogs was far too impressed with itself, which is why despite having a good opportunity to be endearing or even human the film is cold, remote, distant.  I genuinely did not care if Atari found Spots or bonded with Chief.

Not once did I care about any creature in Isle of Dogs because Anderson, at his worst, cannot bring himself to care about his characters.  He cares passionately about the look of things, but Anderson seems more concerned with the visuals than the emotions.

Image result for isle of dogsWe also have other problems.  I find the name 'Atari' self-consciously cute.  I find Chief referring to Nutmeg at one point as 'Felix's bitch' a bad pun.  I also find Tracy, with her big blonde Afro and black power salute to fit into the 'white savior' narrative.

The only English-speaking human character (the dogs are 'translated' into English, and Anderson finds ways to translate the other character's Japanese without subtitles), it is our American character who pushes to stand up to this dictator.  Without the intervention of this foreigner, we would not have had the ultimate saving of the dogs.

Anderson can dress it up any way he wants, but Tracy does fit into a 'white savior' narrative.

I have also heard that Isle of Dogs is political allegory about a Trump/Putin-type figure expelling 'others', with a xenophobic bent, sham elections, a whipped-up electorate, locking up beings in cages, murdering opponents.  If one wants to see Isle of Dogs as political allegory they are free to do so, but if that was the motivation at this point I genuinely don't care.

Apart from the look of the film I don't see anything to recommend it.  I enjoyed Goldblum's Duke, constantly passing on gossip he heard with no actual source, and the perpetual calls from Norton's Rex for votes on all matters.  However, sometimes one hears the actors and not the characters to the point the voices become more important.

Isle of Dogs reminds me of a funeral: there's a beautiful corpse, but it's dead inside.


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