Wes Anderson’s Isle Of Dogs comes right off the heels of the colourful noir of Grand Budapest Hotel, the frenzied adolescence in Moonrise Kingdom and the surprising realism in the wacky Fantastic Mr.Fox. Isle Of Dogs mixes multiple levels of satire to create social commentary on the festering of fear and hatred, authoritarianism, segregation and xenophobia. For troubling times like these, Wes Anderson’s departure from his usual non-political style to dealing with social concerns is not that surprising after all. In pitting man’s best friend against mankind, Anderson hopes to appeal to the purest pathos of all; A bond that exists everywhere and has stood the test of time. It will, no doubt, tug at the heartstrings of millions of people around the world. And what an irony it is. Perhaps, the ultimate satire of the film is that it takes corrupting the sacred bonds between humans and animals for us to get a wake-up call on the atrocities we are committing against our fellow humans.
Isle Of Dogs is unquestionably lovable, beautiful and heart-warming. The slick and versatile visuals reaches new heights in the art of stop-motion animation. Each dog is thoroughly conceived and receives a compelling backstory. The central characters (various dogs and humans) of the film have their own moments that shape the course of fate in their own way. Some have called Anderson’s films ‘too smart’ to ever be really authentic or affecting. But I didn’t really feel that here. Isle Of Dogs’ has such a diverse cast of characters that mask, perhaps, Anderson’s tendencies to get ‘too clever’ with dialogue. Other than quips, retorts and typical quick witted humour, Isle Of Dogs preserves the authenticity of its diverse array of characters which is crucial anyway for a film that wants to break down barriers and discrimination.
While some accuse the film of white-washing, I think it is quite unfair. Anderson isn’t making a film about Japanese culture, he’s simply borrowing it (a tribute to Japanese culture maybe?). In effect, he could have chosen any other country as his setting. Of course, Isle Of Dogs is not free from certain stereotypical cliches about Asian/Japanese culture. But it is unfair to pin-point this given that most of the film features the dogs, the young male protagonist and scenes of revolt that do not feature any Japanese-centric stereotypes. And unless you’re able to hear and understand dog language, don’t even mention about white-washing the dialogue. In today’s world where we’re quick to call out something as ‘misappropriation of culture’, it is worth remembering the importance of narrative. If Wes Anderson was making a film about Japanese society, then he should be held to the standards that demand a fair portrayal of Japanese society. But he is not. He is making a film about all of us.
What is cliche though, one may argue, is the plot. But besides the narrative direction of the film, there are many serious and surprising moments of great humanism, maturity and melancholy that are hard to shake off. Anderson does best at appealing to both the sensibilities of children and the realism for adults. In a scene where the group of dogs talk about their favourite treat, Chief (a stray) ends by stating his favourite treats are the nicer scraps he finds when rummaging through the garbage. What follows is an emotional account of his life, where he talks about how he uncontrollably bit his previous owner and has since shaped him as he accepts the idea that he was always innately ‘wild and dangerous’. It is a hard-hitting moment as many viewers will be able to relate to the ideas and characteristics that we come to adopt as a result of perpetuation of stereotypes by our peers, society, media and government. Chief was undeniably incarcerated and outcast by society even before the dog flu began, which makes his narrative one of the most significant ones if we are to appreciate Isle Of Dogs’ commentary on the lasting damage that discrimination does to its victims.
Adults will be able to pick this up easily. But more importantly, by anthropomorphising the emotions and feelings of dog-to-dog and dog-to-human interaction in simple exposition, Isle of Dogs is effective in transcending ethos and logos to children as well. It is a well-balanced act with the intention of being easy for everyone to connect with. It is not meant to be an extremely sophisticated and challenging study of society that some critics wrongly hold as a universal yardstick for a good film.
While watching Isle Of Dogs, you root for the passionate youth activism, outcast dogs and the brave Japanese boy (Atari) at the heart of this story. It is heart-warming to see Isle Of Dogs lift up society’s voiceless and empower them through understanding and love. Isle Of Dogs is not groundbreaking in any way, but it is a much needed satire that places things in ironic perspective. Just like the odyssey that Atari undergoes to find his lost dog, so too do we have a long journey in the fight against authoritarianism and our attitudes toward those who are different.