Isle of Dogs review: A biting comment against America?s rabid politics

By Poulomi Das

A couple of minutes into the overwhelming Isle of Dogs it’s evident why Wes Anderson’s return to stop-motion animation (after 2009’s Fantastic Mr Fox) feels destined — almost like a long overdue visit to home territory. After all, no other medium can sing such beautiful paeans to Anderson’s obsessive detailing and turn his visual language into a vivid and stylish piece of art, bursting with colour and infectious energy in every frame. It’s a match made in heaven. And Isle of Dogs – comprising hand-drawn 2D animation and puppets creating the illusion of movement in stop-motion, guaranteeing Anderson absolute control over every single frame – is the resounding proof.

In Isle of Dogs, the director gives us a peek into his celebrated world of whimsy. Set in the fictional Japanese town of Megasaki, 20 years in the future, the film plays out like a fable. It centres around the mass deportation of dogs to a coastal garbage dump known as Trash Island under the orders of the town’s dictatorial Mayor Kobayashi. Besides the mythical backstory behind the mayor’s hatred for dogs, the trigger for this sudden expulsion is public health concerns: Megasaki’s canine population is infected with the contagious and untreatable dog flu – easily transmitted to humans – and snout fever.

Kobayashi brainwashes the entire town into believing that dogs are not a man’s best friend, but their enemy instead. He declares the deportation at a rally, even though the scientist Watanabe, speaker of the rival Science Party, reveals how close he is to perfecting a treatment for snout fever and dog flu. That very day, the anti-dog campaign starts with the banishment of Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber), the bodyguard of Atari, the mayor’s 12-year-old ward. Soon after, countless dogs, both lovelorn strays and obedient house pets, follow the same fate. Isle of Dogs starts off when Atari crash-lands on Trash Island to rescue his faithful companion, and befriends a motley crew of five canines who help him in his search.

The canines are undoubtedly the beating heart of the film. You could watch them for hours and still demand an encore. Image credit: American Empirical Pictures

Just like Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest HotelIsle of Dogs hinges on rebellion. But unlike his previous films which focused on intimate personal revolts, Isle of Dogs is centered on a more universal one, the result of systemic societal abuse. It’s impossible to shake the pervasive feeling of timeliness off every frame of the film, as it goes about providing a searing commentary on immigration, the gory murder of dissent, and the indifference of the masses, and abuses inflicted on minorities. In fact, it even implies the only foreseeable future for such a regime is genocide. The film acts not just as a grave commentary on xenophobic American politics, but also on governments around the world, equally culpable in various shades of othering.

For a film that critiques passive obedience to uniformity, Isle of Dogs champions the idea of diversity in a cleverly beautiful way: The dialogues of the Japanese characters (playing the humans) are not accompanied by English subtitles, save for news reports and an interpreter (Frances McDormand) who translates the Mayor’s words. The dogs, on the other hand speak English. Naturally, much of what Atari, the scientists, or the students convey are lost in translation for the English-speaking audience, but that’s not to say that we don’t understand their words: Like the dogs in the film, the audience gets the gist of their thoughts. We are given two choices, either interpret it, or misinterpret it like governments in power do, when it comes to “different breeds” of people. In harmony with the film’s spirit, the decision to put the burden of interpretation on the audience is an act of rebellion.

In a way, the film poses a pertinent question: Why should we be restricted to one language, when there are so many different languages that can co-exist beautifully? All it takes to understand one another is a little effort. Banishing languages, people, and beliefs that are dissimilar to us is never the answer, Anderson subtly underlines.

The horrors of state-sponsored displacement are evoked through the arresting construction of Trash Island. Garbage has its texture, as does smoke. Clean water is hard to come by. Rivers flowing under a bridge glitter, and the frequent fights have a delicious cloud detailing to them; Anderson beautifies heaps of garbage without actually beautifying them, like a suffocating cave made out of disposed bottles. As is his trademark, he exploits film space to flatten and deepen frames. One of my favourite moments from the film is how he uses shadows to paint a silhouette shot of the dogs arguing on a heap of colourful trash. Another detailed kidney transplant procedure (perhaps the first in animated history!) provides a delicious canvas for the director’s visual flair.

By throwing the spotlight on animated four-legged leads, Isle of Dogs manages something most feature films falter at: organically evoke empathy. Image credit: American Empirical Pictures

The canines are undoubtedly the beating heart of the film, whether it is Chief (Bryan Cranston) proclaiming “I bite”, the TV-loving Oracle (Tilda Swinton), or even Nutmeg’s (Scarlett Johansson) show-dog moves. You could watch them for hours and still demand an encore. They make the film roaringly funny, gloomy, and heartbreakingly beautiful.

Moreover, Isle of Dogs is a testament to the urgent need for animated movies to address socio-political context. Just like last year’s Paddington 2 and Coco, Anderson also emphasises the power of kindness, and the importance of embracing outsiders instead of expelling them. By throwing the spotlight on animated four-legged leads, Isle of Dogs manages something most feature films falter at: organically evoke empathy.

After all, it’s no coincidence that Isle of Dogs sounds very similar to “I love dogs”.

The article was originally published in Arre.