Isle of Dogs is Wes Anderson’s second animated film but it bears little resemblance to his previous foray, 2009’s Fantastic Mr Fox, beyond the common thread of anthropomorphic animal characters. Where Fox was a humanistic comedy of manners, Isle of Dogs is a futuristic science fiction-action-political thriller amalgamation that should be unwieldly at every turn and yet never buckles under the weight of all that’s going on. And, it’s one of the most startlingly complex films I’ve seen all year.
In Isle of Dogs, a feud that’s been brewing for millennia erupts somewhere in a dystopian Japan when an influenza virus spreads throughout the canine population. The influenza virus threatens to crossover to humans and is enough for the authoritarian Mayor Kobayashi to banish all dogs to an island, while a scientist struggles to publicise a cure for the flu that the government tries to keep quiet. But the preoccupation of the film is not with the humans, but with the dogs on Trash Island, where six months into their internment they are visited by Atari, a young boy searching for his lost dog. Atari just happens to be Kobayashi’s nephew and so the film’s complications arise.
Isle of Dogs is heavy on plot. The conceit – an island where dogs are abandoned – is the kind you could see becoming a punchline for a single joke but each of the film’s 100-minute run-time is packed with information that occasionally, and sometimes deliberately, goes over our heads. The anthropomorphic dogs all speak in English, but all the Japanese people speak in Japanese, which is pointedly un-subtitled. In a deft move, key public broadcasts are translated via Frances McDormand as Interpreter Nelson (who in one of the film’s slyest moments is replaced by a young boy), but for the most part we are deliberately in the dark when the humans arrive on screen, except in the case of the American-exchange student Tracy – an exasperating and officious deconstruction of the American-saviour trope that the film deploys with a pointed savvy.
And, yet, the harshest critics of Isle of Dogs might be on to something when they argue the film is often just a chance for Anderson to play with his toys. Because it is almost impossible not to view Isle of Dogs as a markedly formalist experiment by Anderson, whose fascination with animation as a form of communication is overt throughout the stop-motion film. I still hold on to the chaotic aimlessness of Fantastic Mr Fox as Anderson at his most creative, but Isle of Dogs feels like a necessary apex of Anderson’s technical focus. Anderson’s fussy tendencies toward visual precision as a director come home to roost here in the animated form, where he has complete control of his mise-en-scène in a way that a live-action film could not offer. It’s the very much like a play-acting exercise in this way. There’s that pointed way that children use their toys to create specific tableaus that have specific values against each other. Anderson is playing with toys here, and the form suggests childlike exuberance except the games being played explore things like genocide, and the inescapabilty of death and the frailty of family.
The idea of adults playing with toys is echoed in the recently released Christopher Robin, which closed in theatres earlier this week after a brief run. (Isle of Dogs, strangely, never opened in Guyanese theatres). The main theme in Christopher Robin is that familiar admonition to adults: finding your inner child is the only way to be a good adult. And so, in Christopher Robin, the married Christopher, who has lost touch emotionally and physically with his friends in the Hundred Acre Woods, has become a repressed pencil-pusher with a daughter who has been raised to not have fun. Naturally, the solution to his inattentive fatherhood and joyless marriage is a reawakening of the childhood spark, which shall reignite the verve in him.
The long list of family films to follow this trend are myriad. But the thematic implications seem limp today when considered against cultural developments in a world of adults who have too indiscriminately held on to their childhood affectations without any realisation that the best way to be an adult, sometimes, is to learn how to grow up. The thematic simplicity of Christopher Robin is not an indictable offence but there’s a facileness in its urgings to become a child again when read against the more creative socio-cultural dichotomy that Isle of Dogs presents. Although I’m not sure if Isle of Dogs, with its unabashed prickliness, fits our definition of a family film. The futuristic Japan presented is both classical and eerily prescient. But Isle of Dogs’ intimations about childhood are devastatingly complex.
For all the trappings of the animation and its antropomorphised protagonists, Isle of Dogs is not warm. It’s funny, but in a dry way that’s hard to embrace. The lack of overt warmth, though, seems to be its key against something as treacly embraceable as Christopher Robin. The way to read its inability to approach warmth can mean anything: in a futuristic world where people have lost the inability to feel, animals must become our barometers of emotion, especially when people abandon nature for science. The dystopian futuristic Japan and its Cold War implications are not subtle but become effectively chilling when Isle of Dogs is read as some sort of perverse ecocriticism. But deciding what exactly Isle of Dogs means seems almost secondary to enjoying the technical marvel the film offers.
Isle of Dogs is currently streaming on iTunes, Amazon and Vudu.