OP-ROB RATING: BENCH
Here is a wonderful little interview in which Wes Anderson discusses the first screening of his 1996 directorial debut “Bottle Rocket”. I wont spoil the funnier details from the video, but essentially Anderson talks about his confidence going into the screening, and how it was a total disaster. People left early, wrote negative comments, etc. However, one positive takeaway was a single comment left by a girl who loved the movie because she understood the finer details. If you like Wes Anderson, and you haven’t seen “Bottle Rocket”, then it is worth watching. It is raw at times, and takes a while to warm up to, but the characters in it are unforgettable. Walking out of “Isle of Dogs”, Anderson’s newest film, the interview popped into my mind, because it says a lot about the transformation of a director, and how something vital can be lost along the way.
“Isle of Dogs” is set in the city of Megasaki in a futuristic version of Japan, the film follows a clever plot in which the cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) responds to a dangerous outbreak of dog flu by banishing all canines to Trash Island, the metropolis’ dumping ground. While Kobayashi’s decision is met with widespread praise, a select few decide to protest, including Kobayashi’s adopted ward, named Atari (Koyu Rankin). This assertive youngster is determined to find his beloved guard dog Spots (Liev Schreiber) and manages to crash-land a little plane on the desolate island. Atari is found by a motley group of five dogs: Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban), Rex (Edward Norton) and Chief (Bryan Cranston). By the time Atari arrives, we have already been introduced to the dog squad, all of whom were formerly happy pets in Megasaki before Kobayashi’s banishment, with the exception of Chief, who was a stray. Despite Chief’s objections, the dogs decide to help Atari on his quest to recover Spots.
Of course, there are many twists and turns on this journey, with cameos from various dogs including a sage-like Great Bernard named Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham), and his seemingly omniscient Pug partner Oracle (Tilda Swinton). Back in Megasaki, there are side plots including one with Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito), a scientist who believes he can create a serum to cure the dogs’ hazardous ailment, as well as Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), a feisty American foreign exchange student who leads a student group to protest. They both inevitably run into trouble with the ideologically driven Mayor Kobayashi.
Like any Wes Anderson film, there are many things to like about “Isle of Dogs”. The voice cast is stellar, and the story glides along with plenty of crafty references and creative scenes. My favorite is one in which a woman prepares a bento box from scratch, the camera hovering above the table where she works.
However, a big problem with “Isle of Dogs” is that it feels pre-assembled for the Wes Anderson template, rather than being something independent. The story is weak, and acts as a vehicle for all of the telltale Andersonian signs: symmetry, an ensemble cast, richly decorated sets, and an overall whimsicalness. An indication of the story’s faintness is that it doesn't beg to be set in Japan. Sure, there are plenty of set pieces ranging from taiko drums to Boss’ Chunichi Dragons inspired baseball jersey. But strip away those things, and you have a story that could easily be exported to China, Brazil, Germany, or any other non-English speaking country simply because many scenes rely on that fact that the dogs don't speak the native language of the humans. None of the Japanese characters have any depth. The two most prominent, Atari and Mayor Kobayashi, are both incredibly static, with the exception of one hasty transformation at the tail end of the movie. Rather, all of the attention is on the English-speaking dogs, namely Chief and Spots. This is another reason “Isle of Dogs” felt padded with Japanese aesthetics, rather than growing out of a Japanese inspired story.
However, a slight cultural flimsiness is not a good reason to condemn the entire movie. My issue is not one of “cultural appropriation”, which is a bogus term and impossible for any creative person to avoid (how could anyone write/draw/film etc. anything beyond their sole personal life experience without drawing influence from other cultures?). The main issue with “Isle of Dogs” is that it lacks memorable characters. It lacks a soul. “Bottle Rocket” had Dignan, “Rushmore” had Max Fischer, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” had Mr. Fox, and the list could go on. “Isle of Dogs” has… Chief? The stray dog starts off the movie as a embittered stray, believing that humans are the enemy. What transformation could possibly occur?
After watching “Isle of Dogs”, it seems that Anderson has stopped making movies for people like the girl who wrote the positive comment at the “Bottle Rocket” screening. Rather, he has turned toward an audience that knows what to expect, and don't want to be challenged by more complex narratives. Anderson now has a “brand” of sorts and he has become too comfortable in that space. The results are films like “Isle of Dogs”, which focus far more on checking the box on all the Andersonian trademarks, rather than the actual story and character development. “Bottle Rocket” isn’t the best Wes Anderson movie, but it was made out of passion, and so were more refined greats like “Rushmore”, “The Darjeeling Limited”, and even “Fantastic Mr. Fox”. Indeed, “Isle of Dogs” is a meticulously detailed, clever movie. It has Wes Anderson written all over it. Cleverness only goes so far, even when it is incredibly fine-tuned. Unlike Anderson’s earlier work, the film runs its course and leaves the viewer nothing real to chew on.