Wes Anderson has earned quite a reputation over the last 24 years for making films packed with whimsy, eccentricity, and gentle humor. He is a very funny filmmaker indeed, and yet if you look closer at his past eight movies, you will see work tinged with melancholy and malice. Gene Hackman’s ne’er-do-well dad was an emotionally abusive ass in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, Mr. Fox gets his tail shot off by irate farmers in THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX, and even if THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL was a pink-hued Valentine to a bygone era of luxury hotels, it was also a scathing indictment of fascism. (M. Gustave was killed by the gray-uniformed cadre at the end of the story after all.) Now, there is ISLE OF DOGS, his ninth film, and while its cast consists mostly of lovable dogs, it is easily the darkest of Anderson’s oeuvre. It’s animated, but it’s definitely not for the kiddies.
The poster, with its rows of canine characters all staring with deadpan expressions, may suggest that this outing is going to be cute as all get out, and some of it is, but most of it is a poisoned pen letter aimed at totalitarianism and all the ruin laid in the wake of such evil. And the beleaguered discriminated against group here are not Muslims or foreigners, but man’s best friend. Only here, the dogs in a futuristic version of Japan, are reviled for their overpopulating, their disease, and thus banned to an island until the brutal regime in charge of things can figure out what to do about the scourge of pooches.
Every dog in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki gets shipped to the nearby island that happens to be where all of the city’s garbage gets dumped. (A bit on-the-nose, but effective symbolism for sure.) There, the canines are left to fend for themselves, and no care is given to them to help them eat, survive, or even fight the “dog flu” or “snout fever” that ails them all. Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura), the mayor of Megasaki, gives lip service to the idea that they’ll all be welcome back once the scientists find a cure for all the doggie ailments, but he secretly is working to annihilate the entire pooch population.
Of course, Kobayashi is also a cat lover. As in any movie where the dogs are the heroes, filmmakers feel the need to portray felines as the enemy. It’s unsophisticated and beneath Anderson to represent such prejudices, but mercifully, he doesn’t belabor it. What he concentrates on instead are the politics on the island, as well as the rebels trying to save the dog population behind the mayor’s back. One of them is the evil mayor’s own ward and “distant nephew” Atari (Koyu Rankin). He manages to land a small plane he’s commandeered to “Trash Island” in hopes of finding Spots (Liev Schreiber), who not only is Atari’s companion and guardian, but he also was the first dog shipped over to Trash Island.
Atari meets the odd mix of dogs who’ve banded together on the island, and they become his friends and aids in the search for Spots. The pack consists of a self-described “pack of scary, indestructible alpha dogs” voiced by many of Anderson’s favorite actors. The leader of the group is Rex (Edward Norton), an earnest, if not befuddled by leadership, hound. His cohorts include Boss (Bill Murray), a former team mascot; King (Bob Balaban), a former dog food commercial star; and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), the gossipy busy-body. The newcomer is Chief (Bryan Cranston), a mangy stray who reluctantly joins them after protecting them from a pack of ruffians on the island.
The actors all voice their characters with the droll, understated delivery that Anderson prefers, and almost every conversation they have yields big laughs. Of course, the point of talking animals in any entertainment is to create a sense of anthropomorphic relatability, but it plays well here as the pack plays like a bunch of ‘freaks and geeks’ that are eminently human in their vulnerabilities and banter.
Even with all those macho sounding dog names, the only genuine tough is Chief, and with Cranston’s baritone burr, he sounds as masculine as they come. Still, Anderson and Cranston find many shades to this mongrel, and he becomes the de facto centerpiece of the story. Chief not only wants to help his friends survive, and Atari locate his best friend, but he wants to be loved himself. He also turns the search for Spot into a journey of self-discovery. Chief’s own history is a blur to him, ensuring that the truest character arc will be his.
There are many charms to this film in both its story and animation style. The dialogue between the characters is a hoot and a half, the droll delivery of the lines makes every utterance even funnier. And the deadpan faces of the dogs throughout is worthy of Keaton or Groucho. Anderson's film has gravitas too as the filmmaker makes pointed political commentary throughout the story. He savagely indicts politics and megalomaniac leaders, which plays as incredibly timely given our world of dictators and dictator wannabes.
The filmmaker also pokes a lot of fun at Japanese culture, as well as the American obsession with aspects of the culture, particularly in the character of Tracy, a foreign-exchange student from Cincinnati voiced by Greta Gerwig. She not only loves the country and tries to fit in through her looks and manner, but she has a secret crush on Atari and is avidly working to undermine the corrupt mayor and all of his minions.
The voice cast alone is one of the most star-studded ever assembled, and Anderson finds vivid roles for all of the following: F. Murray Abraham, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Fisher Stevens, Courtney B. Vance, and Anjelica Huston. Particular praise goes to Frances McDormand as the harried interpreter who breathlessly fills in the blanks for the audience by translating much of the Japanese dialogue, as well as young actor Koyu Rankin who voices the brusque and determined young Atari. Composer Alexandre Desplat, an Anderson favorite, should also be given high praise for his bombastic and funny underscore filled with timpani, gongs, and chimes. It’s both funny and angry, like much of this movie.
Anderson also skewers the worst habits of our society and our tendency to ignore problems or enable them, be they ecological issues or political tomfoolery. All of the actual monsters here walk on two legs. Even the dangerous dogs are mechanical ones, invented by the mayor’s forces to replace the flesh and blood kind. It all makes for a fascinating mix of comedy, pathos, and laser-focused parody. Not since WALL-E has there been a movie that was so sweet, as well as savage. In fact, the whole disposable culture we live in gets trashed here just as viciously, and some theaters will likely make that Pixar masterpiece and this Anderson one a double bill sometime soon.
Occasionally, Anderson makes his film a bit difficult to enjoy. The fact that the Japanese characters don't get subtitled seems exclusionary, and some of the portrayals of the nation’s hierarchy verge on racial stereotypes. It’s also hard to laugh at dogs getting their ears bit off in fights, no matter how nonchalant the victims seem to be about losing an appendage. And watching fleas and rats move around the perimeters of the screen is not for the squeamish, even if presented in stop-motion animation. Still, these are minor quibbles for a film that is bold, hilarious and devastating in targeting its blows.
This film is one of Anderson’s best, and the politics on display in his more and more of his work has become an elixir for our troubled times. He’s putting overt political commentary out there, and while he may crowd his stories with mostly male characters, just as writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson does, he is lambasting the macho bullshit of men that continues to plague the world. Man is always the worst monster in almost any horror movie, and Anderson applies that same principle to his dark comedy cartoon here as well.