Laurent Rejto and his colleagues at the Hudson Valley Film Commission must have smiles that they can’t wipe off their faces this week, what with the stunning critical and box-office success of the locally shot horror flick A Quiet Place. What could possibly keep Almanac Weekly from leaping immediately onto the praise bandwagon for a blockbuster whose spine-tingling action sequences include a scene filmed on the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail bridge in New Paltz? Easy answer: the simultaneous release of a new Wes Anderson movie. That, Esteemed Readers, qualifies as an Event, cinematically speaking.
Granted, Wes Anderson movies aren’t for everybody: One viewer’s meticulous craftsmanship may be another’s twee fussiness. And the director’s deadpan sense of humor may baffle some audiences. To this reviewer, however, the secondary realities that his films depict, set a logical quarter-turn away from the real world, are skewed just enough to provide delicious immersion in the slightly absurd, rendered with a visual orderliness that beckons the viewer to suspend disbelief without a struggle. I always look forward to a new one with great relish.
This imposition of formality of construction on potentially chaotic narrative and characterization is arguably the aesthetic signature of Anderson’s oeuvre, and the dividing line between his fans and his detractors. Consider, for example, Ralph Fiennes’ Oscar-nominated turn as Monsieur Gustave, concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel: Despite the character’s questionable ethics and frequent outbursts of profanity, he manages to wear a tarnish-proof halo of consistent good manners to his clientele. There’s a lot of oblique humor to be harvested from such a delicate balancing act, if you “get it,” and Anderson has been blessed with a stable of actors who know exactly how to walk that fine line.
He puts some of his regulars to excellent use in his newest animated opus, Isle of Dogs – notably Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham and Harvey Keitel. All shine in doggy roles (though I somehow missed Anjelica Huston, credited for the voice of Mute Poodle). New voices here include Bryan Cranston, Liev Schreiber, Courtney B. Vance, Greta Gerwig, Scarlett Johansson, Yoko Ono, Ken Watanabe, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama and Akira Ito.
A young Canadian actor of half-Japanese extraction, Koyu Rankin, plays the lead role of Atari, the nephew of wicked, cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (Nomura). Atari crash-lands on the titular island in search of his beloved guard dog Spots, who was among the first to be exiled to the magnificently ghastly landfill island in the harbor of the fictional city of Megasaki following outbreaks of virulent and allegedly incurable “dog flu” and “snout fever.”
It’s in the movie’s setting, in a dystopian future Japan, and in its mainly undeveloped (and untranslated) Japanese characters that Isle of Dogs runs into a bit of trouble, laying the director/screenwriter open to accusations of cultural appropriation. Not being Japanese myself, I’m not the most qualified person to make that judgment, and reactions so far from critics and moviegoers in Japan seem to be mixed. His past works have proven popular in that country, and Anderson is a self-proclaimed fan of Japanese culture, claiming Kurosawa among his primary cinematic influences; but it’s sometimes hard to know with this director whether he’s falling prey to Ugly Americanism or poking meta-fun at it. My initial reaction was that the relative formality of Japanese social interaction, as perceived from a Western perspective, frames Anderson’s sneaky sense of humor admirably. But maybe that’s just me being culturally tone-deaf, and I stand correctable.
The most obvious focus of criticism in this film has been a blatant “white savior” portrayed by Gerwig: Tracy, a prickly American exchange student/school newspaper editor who riles up her more stereotypically passive Japanese classmates to revolt against the corrupt mayoral administration and demand return of the abducted canines. She’s one of Anderson’s trademark “oddball kid” characters; Atari himself is her determined Japanese counterpart.
But it’s really among the English-speaking exiled dogs themselves that the meat of this story takes place, and most of the pleasure. Cranston voices Chief, the maverick leader of a scrawny, scrappy pack of self-described alpha canines who come to Atari’s aid. These focal dogs experience varying levels of conflict and angst over their instinct to be protective of and subservient to humans, despite having been ill-used by them. Chief in particular is proud of having been a stray, and most resistant to the pack’s decision to ally with Atari in his quest (flag future bonding here).
Isle of Dogs is, predictably, visually gorgeous and unsettling at the same time. The island landscape ranges from a horrific nuclear wasteland to a luminous cathedral of piled glass bottles. As in any Anderson film, it is tempting to admire this one shot-by-shot, and animation – here achieved through an amalgam of stop-motion models, puppets and paintings – is a medium that offers this control-freaky auteur unlimited ability to exercise his filmcraft. For my tastes, it’s almost too much perfection, bordering on artificiality; I’m more impressed when he is able to frame the real world with comparable exactitude.
That quibble aside, watching Isle of Dogs is a delightful experience from beginning to end. They might as well inscribe the name plaque for the 2018 Best Animated Feature Oscar right away. If you want social significance as a side dish with your entertainment, look for the metaphors: The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the stigmatization of the HIV-positive during the 1980s AIDS epidemic, the current presidential administration’s enthusiasm for deporting undocumented immigrants will all serve well enough.
I’ll wait to hear more from Japanese viewers about how troubling they find this movie’s stereotypes and lack of character development. I will, however, state without hesitation that Isle of Dogs is guilty of unabashed character assassination against people who prefer cats. They’re the bad guys. If you’re primarily a Dog Person, you should be totally within your comfort zone here. Enjoy.