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From wolves to dogs to Wes: the strange cuteness of ‘Isle of Dogs’

A scene from Wes Anderson's "Isle of Dogs." It is the American auteur's second animated feature, after 2009's "The Fantastic Mr. Fox." Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” is cute, but not cutesy. This clean and cold-blooded animated feature, Wes’s second after “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009), does not drive dog lovers to the edge of cheap tears à la “Marley and Me.” Anderson avoids the common trap, partly, by frontloading his work with endless groan-worthy puns. From its title (isle of dogs … I love dogs … ha!) to its lines (“You son of a bitch!”), the film’s sense of humor feels like it was plagiarized from a Dad Jokes manual. But this very basic, Japan-loving film goes beyond the groans, and lands — with a quiet puff of smoke and a mute thud — into a nice realm of wistfulness, a tender yearning for people and creatures. Wes animates our furry friends with a hard-nosed social life; they talk with to-the-point bluntness, which I secretly wished I possessed. “Isle of Dogs” wants to have it both ways, hypocritically but humanly: reach out to a mass audience, but also only talking insularly to itself, in love with its own pop Japanese references (never as clever or refined as it thinks they are) and its tinker-toy set (a new Wes set is always more whirligiggy than the last).

“Isle of Dogs” neuters the wildness of dogs (already calmer wolves) and turns them into neurotic Anderson constructions, bundles of nerves and quirky quips. The team of dogs (and the English-speaking Americans in Japan who are “our” way into a land whose language we don’t speak) is the Wes Anderson Stock Company, a crew of sophisticated actor-celebs with names like Bryan Cranston, Ed Norton, Greta Gerwig as a foreign exchange student from Ohio, Frances McDormand as the translator, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson as the superfluous love interest, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton with the funniest reaction shots, Yoko Ono in a role beneath her and of course Bill Murray. They all have to cope with a dystopic Japan where dogs are banished to the Island of Trash after they’ve been tagged as “undesirables” with “canine flu.” Meanwhile, a Japanese boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin) crash-lands on Trash Island, in search of his missing dog Spots; the island’s rat pack of dogs (Cranston, Norton, Balaban, Murray) agree to help Atari find Spots, against the doubts of the one stray dog (Cranston) who is revolted by the idea of masters and pets.

Anderson’s tinker-toy Japan is the sleekest and most machine-like world he’s created yet. It basks in the mangy knots of dogs’ furs, deadened by the annoyingly dead-of-center compositions, filled with grim and steampunk visuals like robodogs and abandoned factories. The film, like the set, has the weightlessness of papier-mâché: if you move an inch to the left or right, the illusion crumples feebly. Anderson domesticates the world even further than his neo-Ernst Lubitsch tribute to European decadence, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014). He retreats, like Damien Chazelle did in “La La Land,” into a land of his own mind’s making — not away from the trash heap of society, but indirectly into it, by digging (as a man) into a dog’s mysterious consciousness.

Anderson cruises on autopilot in “Isle of Dogs,” achieving a calm that is neither boring nor involving. It’s a quick, clean affair that is over before you know it. The elements we’ve come to expect of Anderson quirk-fests are here, but sophisticated in their simplicity. Front and center is the cheery gallows’ humor, where dark comedy veers dangerously close to bad taste. However, with each new film, Anderson moves into black comedy with increasing quietude. Choice example: a prolonged Anderson montage where we see the preparation of poisoned sushi, then the victim’s tiiiiiiny lick of the wasabi, then his bloated and bug-eyed corpse on a white stretcher. It’s a one-two-three series of shots that heartlessly (and hilariously) end a great life with the clipped efficiency of a bureaucrat filing paperwork in the city morgue. Anderson’s films have little time for grief, and none for memory.

To match the no-nonsense bluster of his canine subjects, Anderson treats love as a very tempered thing. The bougie show dog Nutmeg (Johansson) straight up tells the stray dog Chief (Cranston): “I’m not attracted to tame animals.” While Gerwig’s Cincinnati Kid recites her plans to rescue Atari, she stutters in her narration, stops and sighs deeply: “Damn it. I’ve got a crush on you,” uninflected, without feeling, like a cold morning fact. The vocal equivalent of Anderson’s info-crammed tableaux, these lines are the opposite of the writhingly cute romance of the “Moonrise Kingdom” kids, who danced to French ya-ya on the beach and knocked me out with an audacious sublimity.

“Isle of Dogs” is recognizably the same Wes, yes, but much darker, a bit more tired and world-weary—especially sonically. The only 1960s-era crate-digger song on the soundtrack is the West Coast Pop Experimental Band’s “I Won’t Hurt You” (1967), where the hazy whispers and erratic heartbeat and guitar-strums make the song an incredibly depressing declaration of love. The song plays as the dogs travel through the Isle of Trash in search of Spots. When we suspect we’ll never find him, the feeling is expressed not through the predictable plot, but in that precisely chosen musical downer. Like most of the Anderson deep pop cuts (“Where Do You Go To, My Lovely?”, the early acoustic Kinks song from “Rushmore”), we are privileged to hear a man’s private connection to music, since these aren’t the typical pop hits of “Fortunate Son” / “Yesterday” / “Satisfaction” that are more obviously remembered. Instead, we sense an idiosyncratic personal taste that shuns the desire to be obviously involved in the world — but not with a slavish complacency. Thus, “Isle of Dogs” (in its detachment and lack of obvious neurosis) loops around in a circle and comes back to the unruly and shaggy “Darjeeling Limited,” probably Wes’s best film, certainly his most honest. “Darjeeling” centers around sibling rivals who couldn’t even come together to agree on how to talk to Mom; “Isle of Dogs” deals with a similar desire to return home, only to discover there is no home to return to. The city of Megasaki is such a traumatized space, feelings are not allowed to seep in, since society has violently repressed the individual’s capacity to feel. Anderson’s films are not detached and clean because they themselves are; they are because they reflect the world they see around them, sighing in deep rueful tones, with only a keen eye and a good ear to guide him.

To some, this is not enough. “Isle of Dogs” has been making the 2018 rounds with charges of cultural appropriation. The charges are not wrong, per se. In our post-movie debrief, my viewing partner and I both expressed doubts about certain unconscious effects left in by Wes related to the Japanese setting. Why couldn’t we hear what the Japanese were saying? We sit listening to the Toshiro Mifune-inspired president groan and gruff— somewhat gratuitous in its tooned harshness. I was bored of the Japan gleaned through a set of stock Western images of the country: Hokusai’s woodcut of a wave, Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” theme, the non-conceptual-art image of Yoko Ono. Actually, this latter image angered me the most; as I’ve written before, I hate the treatment of Ono as a punchline in the popular American imagination. Anderson does nothing to complicate the idiotic stereotype of a crucial 20th century avant-garde artist; in a display of Dad Humor gone too far, showing Dad’s age, he presents her as “Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono”; she has no lines except a series of pat, cliché pleads in broken English. Ugh.

Ultimately, these moments didn’t cancel out my quiet admiration for “Isle of Dogs.” Since his first film, Wes has always presented himself as an upper-class white dandy. It’s who he is. It’s an identity that he has always been framed with self-deprecation. He presents his people, extensions of himself, more often like fools than wisemen. We can pick apart Wes Anderson’s flaws and gaps in knowledge until the sky caves in. Spiritually, I’d rather spend my energies focused on other things. Like Wes, I recognize my inevitable distance with everything and everyone around me, but I still try to establish some sort of common ground with people. “Isle of Dogs” is built of a series of gazes at people who aren’t the gazer, who don’t come from where the gazer comes from, who don’t speak the gazer’s language. An American looking into Japan. A human looking into a dog. Long lost brothers trying to recall a past that they can’t remember.

Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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