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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Review: Isle of Dogs (2018)

* * 1/2

Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, and the Wes Anderson players

I like to think that the title of Wes Anderson's latest film, though it refers literally to the location of much of the film's action, is its first joke. Traditionally, dogs do not fare well in Anderson's films. When they die, their deaths tend to be brutally violent (see The Royal Tenenbaums, see Moonrise Kingdom). When you say this film's title aloud, it sounds like "I love dogs," as in "despite killing fictional pets every chance I get, I'm not a dog hating monster;" and when you watch the film, it starts to feel like it's playing with you a little bit, using your knowledge of the fates of dogs in previous films to tease you at various points with the possibility that some of the canine characters have met with terrible fates, only to reveal it was a fakeout. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but maybe Anderson is having a bit of fun with his audience, making his meta-humor just as offbeat as his regular humor. However, playful as it might be, Isle of Dogs is actually pretty serious stuff and makes for Anderson's most overtly political (for better or worse) film to date.

Set in the near future in Japan, the events of Isle of Dogs take place largely in the aftermath of a flu pandemic that has affected the nation's dogs. In the city of Megasaki the Mayor (Kunichi Nomura), who comes from a long historical line of cat lovers, declares that all dogs will be banished to Trash Island in order to prevent the flu from spreading to the rest of the population. The first dog to be exiled is Spots (Liev Schreiber), the beloved pet of the Mayor's ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin). In order to be reunited with his dog, Atari steals a plane and flies himself to Trash Island, crash landing and being rescued by a pack of Alpha dogs: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), all dogs who once had masters and are inclined to feel affection for humans, and Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray who would just as soon eat Atari as save him. He certainly wants nothing to do with helping Atari find his dog, but he's outvoted by the rest of the pack and so the five dogs and the 12 year old boy set off on an arduous journey across the island.

Far from being hidden below the surface of this quest narrative, Isle of Dogs' political commentary plays out right alongside it and always on the surface. A story about a politician using the media to scapegoat an entire population by characterizing them not just as dangerous, but as a threat to the very survival of the nation itself, and then launching a widespread campaign to capture and expel the "unwanted" population, segregating them via a physical border, feels awfully reminiscent of the "build that wall" rhetoric. Yet, at the same time, I'm not sure that Isle of Dogs actually has that much to say about the powerful using their position to make the lives of a more vulnerable population worse. The film is clear about who it considers the villains (the Mayor and his henchmen, which includes a police force that uses extreme force as a first resort) and who it considers the heroes (the dogs and the humans who fight to bring them back from Trash Island), but it also makes the inciting issue an actual, rather than imagined, problem. The dogs really are sick with an illness that makes them overly aggressive and which makes finding a solution necessary. That doesn't make the villains' treatment of the dogs, who are basically expelled to the island and left to die slow deaths from starvation and disease, any less cruel, but it does undercut the notion that the villains are targeting a group that they have always hated (because they're cat lovers) simply because they can and for no other reason.

Moreover, the film's unintentional politics are, at best, pretty messy. Aside from dashes of Orientalism used to embellish Anderson's beloved dollhouse aesthetic (an aesthetic that only feels more precious for being animated than it does in Anderson's live action works), there's also a character who would qualify as a white savior figure - an exchange student voiced by Greta Gerwig who rallies her fellow students to stand up to the Mayor and manages to get the cure for the dog flu from a scientist named Yoko Ono - and the troubling depiction of Chief. At the start of the film Chief is a black dog who is rougher around the edges than every other dog in the movie because he was never a pet. He's always been a street dog and he possesses the morality of a street dog, which means that he wants to look out for himself (and the rest of his pack) but wants nothing to do with Atari. Late in the film Atari gives Chief a bath, which reveals that Chief isn't a black dog at all. He's a white dog and the revelation that he's a white dog coincides with him turning from a reluctant companion to Atari to an outright protector of him. He becomes a "good dog" once he becomes a white dog, which is probably the most messed up thing about the movie (and that includes a scene in which a bunch of dogs get into a fight and one gets his ear bitten off).

This puts me in a bit of a conundrum in terms of whether I can recommend the film or not. I was largely enthralled with Isle of Dogs as it started and got going, less for the story itself than for the beautiful, meticulous craft of the animation, even though its depiction of Japan relies almost exclusively on a limited, stereotypical understanding of what constitutes Japanese culture (haikus, sumo wrestling, taiko drummers, etc.); but if the introduction of the exchange student gave me pause, the transformation of Chief bothered me. There is a narrative reason for the transformation, to be sure, but there's also a long history of blackness/darkness being associated with "bad" or "evil" and whiteness/lightness being associated with "good" or "heroic" in film, a trope which is itself informed by racism and bias in real life, and there was also a really easy way to avoid falling into this trap by using different colors for the dog. So what I'm left with is a film that offers certain aesthetic delights and even a fair bit of charm thanks to some of its voice performances, but which doesn't successfully pull off its intended messaging and which ends up with some presumably unintentional messaging that is off-putting. I don't know that I would watch it again, but I think that it's good enough on a craft level to be worth seeing to decide for yourself.

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