Samuel Russell: Isle of Dogs is, as all Wes Anderson films, an exercise in style as much as substance. His name is synonymous with meticulous art direction, dryly dark humor, and a fast-paced twee dialogue. As proved with Fantastic Mr. Fox, the medium of stop-motion animation pairs comfortably with his sensibilities.
The movie follows a gang of sickly dogs, exiled on Trash Island. The mayor of fictional Japanese city Megasaki has turned humans against them for his own political gain. Atari, the mayor’s 12-year old ward, arrives on the island to rescue his best pal and bodyguard Spots. Meanwhile the leader of the dissenting pro-science political party develops a cure for dog flu (the justification for their exile) and small faction of pro-dog students organize against the government’s anti-dog agenda.
I always enjoy Wes Anderson while I’m watching it. It’s when the film ends and I sit with it for a bit that things tend to fall apart for me. He’s obviously great at delivering a visual feast, which I adore and respect. I’m not one to dismiss something for being purely style with no “substance.” However I take more issue with Anderson’s other strength: emotionally charged moments. He’s great at using all the cinematic tools in his toolbox, music, lighting, design, performance, to create moments and scenes that feel sweet, tender, somber, exciting. Everything you want to feel in a movie. But I don’t think he’s good at stringing those moments together into a cohesive whole.
What did you think of Isle of Dogs, Brian? Did you feel a satisfying emotional through line?
Brian Russell: First I have to say that I have been watching movies with you for a very long time (either side-by-side, or in this case at the same time, but just a state away!) And as I watched, I knew you would love the visuals, but wondered how you would process the characters. I had some very clear impressions myself.
When the movie ended, I sat in the theater for a few minutes watching the credits. I really liked the film. But I didn’t quite love it. Your plot description above is perhaps the first hint. It feels kind of like Speed Racer in the complexity for what really should be pretty simple.
I did have very high expectations, always problematic. And I thought back to some of Anderson’s other films, like Moonrise Kingdom and Grand Budapest Hotel which I totally love. Moonrise for sure had great emotion and felt fully satisfying. Isle of Dogs, however, felt like it just missed the mark.
I’ve had this experience before, and usually start out by thinking it is just me. I somehow “didn’t get it,” especially since my movie-going compatriots, Lisa and Jen, seemed to really love it. But then you and I texted a bit and maybe I did get it, but perhaps I didn’t love it for some deeper missing link?
SR: I definitely get that “did I miss something?” feeling with Wes Anderson and specifically with this film too. I think part of it is how dense his plots are. Sometimes he over-exposits things with narration and flashbacks. The whiz-bang, no-time-to-breath, pace is pretty fun, but it does mean a fairly simple story can feel overwhelmingly plotty. I also think this harkens back to what I was saying about emotionally resonant moments, versus an emotionally complete story. Moment to moment it feels like a compelling movie, but it doesn’t build to anything satisfying.
BR: Yeah I totally get that … while this could be seen as an allegory for oppression, it ultimately didn’t feel like the stakes were all that emotionally high. I felt connected to some of the characters, especially Bryan Cranston’s Chief and F. Murray Abraham’s all-too-brief appearance as Jupiter. And I was super-excited for Great Gerwig’s voice work, but her Tracey Walker totally missed for me. Part of it was her appearance … I kept thinking she was an American exchange student of of Japanese descent but then her hair made me think, “no, she’s just an annoying American interloper.” It all seemed a little too weird … why was this foreigner the leader of the resistance?
SR: Yeah, there was definitely a white savior element, or at least a western savior element. I think Tracey’s character was meant to be racially ambiguous. I also thought she appeared to be Asian American, but with a blonde afro, and of course voiced by a white woman. My guess is that they wanted to commit to the “all characters speak in their native language” thing, and this character needed to speak a lot, so they wanted it to be in English. This is just speculation. Whatever the reason, it was super unnecessary. It’s a movie that already walks the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation, why not make the hero Japanese?
BR: The other thing that really got under my skin was the lack of female dogs. And the few present felt like they were plucked from Lady and the Tramp. Perhaps I have been oversensitized by my liberal millennial children, but it just took me out of the story. It made literally no sense.
SR: Ugh, yes the sexism of this film was egregious and obnoxious. Our culture adheres to a strict (slowly becoming less strict, but still) binary gender roles. But if ever there was a movie that can throw that binary out the window, it’s a movie about dogs. I’ve been dog sitting an adorable black labradoodle named Malka for the past three weeks, and every day I need to clarify to people what pronouns to address her with. This always feels silly, because Malka doesn’t care about pronouns, or gender. She has a biological sex, but Malka does not have a gender identity. This film has it’s female pup characters to look and act super traditionally “feminine.” They’re not active characters, they’re just there for the boy dogs to fall for and impregnate.
BR: So much so that there is an actual dog-rumor-mill to slut-shame Scarlett Johansson’s Nutmeg. What was that about? And why? Just to give her the chance to defend her honor to Chief later on? The sum-total of her character development. I don‘t even know why these top tier actresses would take this work.
SR: On a more positive note, I do think film had more of a point than some of Wes Anderson’s other films. (Grand Budapest Hotel for example. What the heck is that movie about?) It felt relevant to our current political situation, and was in some ways it was almost like a whimsical Holocaust allegory.
BR: Is there a such thing as a “whimsical” holocaust story? Maybe this is the time … first we had The Death of Stalin, and next year we are getting Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. For sure Anderson had something to say. I think the best parts of this film (beyond the expected stellar art direction and character animation) involved the questioning of corrupt politicians, and the demonization and attempted extermination of an innocent group.
SR: I guess stop-motion is just the ideal medium for whimsical Holocaust allegories, because I would argue that Chicken Run also falls into this category. Anyways…
I’m not sure I’m done gestating my feelings about this movie. I enjoyed the experience. I wholly appreciate the artistry of it. I’m not sure I’m fully on board with it holistically.
BR: I hear you. I will be thinking for a bit on this one, and I will likely see it again, if not in theaters then when it arrives in my iTunes catalogue. I have recently been accused of seeing moves from “a filmmaker and writers perspective” instead of “just enjoying it like regular people.” But do regular people know anyone who hates dogs this much? They are among the most awesome creatures on Earth! And so, no, it did not have a satisfying emotional through line.
I give Isle of Dogs 6.7 scuzzy snout virus running noses out of 10 perfectly symmetrical Trash Islands!
SR: And I give Isle of Dogs 6 scientific cocktails out of 10 cotton ball fight-clouds.