On the unexpected beauty of empty bottles, the courage of rebellious youth, and the miraculous stop-motion creations in Isle of Dogs
Isle of Dogs Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Wes Anderson
Screenplay: Wes Anderson
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Greta Gerwig, Kunichi Nomura, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Akira Takayama, Scarlett Johansson, Akira Ito, F. Murray Abraham, Liev Schreiber, Ken Watanabe, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Harvey Keitel
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 41 minutes / 2.35:1
(out of four)
It's like a challenge on one of those cooking shows. Take the tidiest, most orderly film director you can think of, drop him on an island cluttered with mountains of stacked trash, and see what he can make of it.
Turns out that island cleans up nice. At least when it's Wes Anderson doing the cleanup. You could even call it defiant. Resilient. After all, the anti-canine Mayor Kobayashi - of the city of Megasaki, sometime in the near future - intends for the place to be little more than a wasteland. The dogs he exiles there - which is to say, every dog in Megasaki - are meant to rot like all the other refuse that gets indiscriminately dropped there.
But Anderson - in a triumphant return to stop-motion animation, after 2009's brilliant Fantastic Mr. Fox - just had to make a home of it. To whatever degree he could, anyway. Say what you will about his penchant for killing dogs (and other animals, for that matter) in his cinema, he's nonetheless always shown a great generosity toward his characters, and the warmth with which he envelops them in Isle of Dogs - with the very trash meant to debase them, no less - is not just a gesture of kindness but practically a moral statement. Standout production design* is always such an indispensable element of his films - essential to the distinctly handcrafted quality of his work - and here he and his team make customarily memorable use of unlikely pieces.
* After years of worthy candidates getting overlooked for their production design, the Academy finally saw fit to nominate an Anderson film in the category in 2014, with The Grand Budapest Hotel not only earning a nod but taking home the statuette. The winning production designer, Adam Stockhausen, returns in Isle of Dogs for his third collaboration with Anderson, accompanied this time around by stop-motion veteran Paul Harrod.
My favorite example manages to bridge its lonely dumping ground with the polished metropolitan civilization across the sea: Our central pack of now-mangy dogs is gathered together in close conversation. Blanketing them is a makeshift enclosure made entirely of empty glass bottles - reds, yellows and greens, and every shimmering shade in between - their collective glow giving the distinct impression that we're surrounded by Christmas lights. Season's Greetings from Trash Island. (If he hadn't memorably used the song in a previous movie, "Christmastime is Here" would have been a perfect fit.) Not long afterward, back on the mainland, we're in a lab where medical scientists are working on a cure for the dog-flu virus that necessitated the mass canine exodus in the first place. On the pristine white wall lining the back of the frame, more glass bottles - all the same colors, but placed side by side in orderly fashion. The visual parallel between the two locations is lovely and understated.
Even if it were divorced of any context, those moments under that neo-fluorescent bottled light would be moving. In context, it's almost devastating, one of the finest individual visual ideas of Anderson's career. The dogs we've come to know - Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray) and King (Bob Balaban) - have been sent away by the very beings they served so faithfully. Sent away to be forgotten, sent away to die. And in this place of banishment, they've found themselves a cozy, intimate little cave. It's a place, and an image, that feels like home.
Making things even more emotionally raw is that they've just gotten their very first human visitor. The first sign that they haven't been completely forgotten, at least not yet. The little boy, 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin), piloted himself over to the island. (He crashed, but still.) He's looking for his loyal dog and friend, Spots, who was cruelly taken away from him by his own uncle, the aforementioned Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura). The dogs are trying to decide what to do with the little pilot - how to find Spots, where he might be, whether they're willing to help (or how much).
Atari's sudden appearance on Trash Island lifts the gang out of their monotonous lives of scrapping and scraping for trash against other groups of dogs. Whether it's the new sense of purpose, or just the chance for a break in the monotony, or because they're all (well, all except Chief, a proud and boastful stray, a ronin) just so used to serving human masters that it's practically instinct, they agree to help Atari. Even if it means crossing the most dangerous parts of the island or even running the risk of crossing paths with the rumored cannibal dogs on the other side of it.
Particularly in close quarters, Anderson's always-immaculate visual arrangements warm and protect his canine vagabonds when the rest of the world has abandoned them. In action, once the journey is afoot, his compositions are wider and emptier, emphasizing the size and scope of a series of visual backdrops that make an almost expressionistic impact on the foregrounded characters and their melancholy journey. At times it's as if Atari and his new friends are walking past an ever-changing series of murals, each telling its own story. (There's a similarly great touch later in the film, in which a haiku comes to life on screen, its various meanings - both explicit and hidden - unfolding before our eyes. It's a brief sequence but a beautiful demonstration of how imagery and meaning are conjured by words and works of art.)
Complicating the trek is the issue of communication itself. As an early title card tells us, the dogs' barks, snorts and woofs are translated into English, while Atari only speaks Japanese. (Such barriers to communication continue elsewhere throughout the film - from the Frances McDormand-voiced translator broadcasting the day's political events in Megasaki to "the Oracle," a pug who seems to be able to predict the future because ... she watches TV.) The characters' inability to directly communicate is an effective choice by Anderson, especially because of the onus this limitation puts on his stop-motion figures to express themselves. The voice performances are great, yes, but even more important are the dogs themselves - miraculously alive, each a unique presence, the result of painstakinglyl detailed work that pays off spectacularly. The dogs communicate volumes just with the corners of their eyes, and the voice cast does the rest.
As always for Anderson, youth is essential. And not just youth but a specific brand of youth. The stubborn romantic idealism of kids who think they're grownups ... or at the very least aren't intimidated by them. With both Atari's heroic exploits and those of an American exchange student - Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), who galvanizes her fellow student journalists into uncovering the vague but vast conspiracy that led to the mass displacement of man's best friend - Isle of Dogs becomes yet another triumph of youth over adult power structures. It begins with one boy revolutionary and ends with another.
Kobayashi's problem is that he underestimated the rebellion he was, in effect, creating. In dumping all of his city's dogs on Trash Island, what he saw was a whole lot of dogs - individual dogs - that were no longer his problem. He saw them as strays. And yet, even in abandonment, the dogs on Trash Island formed their own communities anyway. Fought loyalty for each other - and, eventually, for Atari, too. (Even Chief, who proudly insists he's a loner and always disagrees with his makeshift pack whenever they take a vote on something, still sticks with them no matter what. He always grumbles ... but he still sticks around.) The personal mission to find one dog, for one boy, eventually transforms into a bigger, more all-encompassing cause.
I admit that a part of me expected this movie to be sort of round two of what Anderson already gave us in Fantastic Mr. Fox (which would have been fine with me - it's still probably my favorite of his). Instead, he took another step in another direction, giving us what I believe to be his most visually ambitious effort yet. He may have done his share of damage to animals in the past, but Isle of Dogs is as warm, strange, playful and sweet a mea culpa as you'll be able to find.