In an alternate universe stop motion Japan, every dog has been exiled to trash island as the last step toward cleansing the island of Japan from the canine infestation. One dog, however, has a master that will not allow him to go silently into the night. Young Atari, the ward of the the man who gave the exile order, sneaks off to trash island to save his beloved dog Spots.
Wes Anderson (“Grand Budapest Hotel”) is, at least to me, the opposite of an acquired taste. I rarely meet someone who didn’t like, if not love, the first Wes Anderson film they ever saw. As a viewer watches more of his films, however, many people start to notice the common themes and styles he employs and thus, tire somewhat of seeing the same thing over and over again.
This even happens to fans of Anderson. I love his films but, it would be hard for me to say that I was excited to see “Isle of Dogs.” I figured it would be more of the usual Wes Anderson stuff and I would like it, but not as much as I liked some of his other films.
I was right. Kind of.
Like Any Other
In many way, “Isle of Dogs” is simply another in a long line of Anderson films. Center framing, parallel tracking, hushed dialogue… all the things everyone makes fun of and then thinks they are clever for noticing and calling out. As with many of his films, it focuses on adolescents or adults in a prolonged state of adolescence and the ways that adolescence is challenged and then grown out of. Whether it is Atari or the dogs in the films, they all grow into better people or animals, as the case may be, usually by being forced to act on their more virtuous desires rather than simply act in a cowardly manner.
The film’s animation is a joy to watch. Stop motion is so perfect for Anderson’s aesthetic that is makes me wonder if he would prefer making films in that medium rather than live action if it didn’t take so long to do. The dialogue is wily funny and poignant, never eliciting huge guffaws or exclamations of “Heck, yeah!” from his audience, but rather, knowing chuckles and sighs of mature satisfaction.
When you leave the film you come away satisfied and deeply joyful instead of amped up and exhausted like a Marvel film. It’s the difference between eating at a fine sushi restaurant and a Chinese buffet, or watching your child score a winning goal and watching them be kind to a stranger. they are both great and have their place, but the one is a rarified should satisfying enjoyment that the other can never be.
Like Nothing Else
I don’t think I’m going to forget this film anytime soon. It’s not even close to my favorite Wes Anderson movie, but it is unique in his oeuvre. The film may be about everything I stated above but it is about something else as well. It is about the underprivileged, refugees, economic class struggle, and elitism.
It’s the first time I can remember, that Anderson gets political in such an in your face way. It makes this one of his more unique films and also presents some self awareness on his part. Anderson films have always felt a bit pretentious and this film tips his hand a little on what Anderson views the film makers role to be(since film makers of his sort are only possible in affluent societies and places of privilege.)
It is easy to imagine that Anderson views himself as a mix of the characters in this movie, trying to find how to stand for what one believes and still live a life not overwhelmed with anger. Atari’s dog has been stolen, and the main dogs have been exiled and everything they had has been taken away to the point that they have started killing themselves, and yet they are not angry. They enact social change and overthrow the evil empire but from a place of fullness and love, not anger and chaos.
In this regard it is a truly beautiful film.
I can’t recommend this film highly enough. I am envious of those for whom this will be their first foray into Anderson as it seems to be his most well rounded film in terms of messages and theme. His films are always introspective but this is the first one I have seen that had me asking not just questions about myself and my family, but about society as a whole.
In that way, it is clear that Anderson is struggling, as many artists are these days, with the current political and social realities that have come to light in the last few years. It may not be a Christian film, but the themes of duty, love, honor, family, respect, sacrifice, and power are so deftly discussed by proxy in a movie about talking dogs, it sometimes feels to me that Christians would especially enjoy this flannel-graph come to life more than anyone.
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