Isle of Dogs
There’s no shortage of animated or live-action movies featuring talking, anthropomorphized dogs. It’s a largely obnoxious trope, where the dogs exist in that uncanny valley where they seem almost human, almost dog and completely creepy. I’m looking at you, Beverly Hills Chihuahua!
Then there’s Wes Anderson’s 2018 film Isle of Dogs. Something of a genre-bender, the protagonists are english-speaking dogs, and the majority of the humans are an odd caricature of Japanese people. Undoubtedly produced with a western audience in mind, the movie makes the space between humans and dogs similar to the space between disparate cultures. The dogs don’t understand anything the humans are saying, save for a few words here and there, like sit and biscuit. Human behavior is oddly precise and distant, while the dogs are impulsive, loyal and a bit sloppy.
Aesthetically, one of the things Isle of Dogs does better than any animated dog movie I’ve ever seen is capture that timeless dog expression. That look of intense befuddlement, where the eyes are full of a paradoxical blend of vacancy and intelligence. We’ve all spoken to our dogs at some point, whether it’s baby talk, scolding, or simply confiding our darkest secrets in them knowing they couldn’t tell a soul if they tried. As a groomer, I talk to dogs on my table regularly, sometimes mumbling my life’s problems to them under my breath. So many of them look at me as though they understand that I’m talking, and that perhaps what I’m saying is serious, but for the life of them, they can’t figure out the specifics. Isle of Dogs captures that look perfectly.
The antagonists in the movie are, of course, cat people. While cats themselves play no large role in the movie, cat people are rightly portrayed as cold-blooded fascists hell-bent on destroying the primordial and sacred bond between man and dog. The whole movie serves as one giant reminder that cat people are weird and should not be trusted.
I kid. I love cats. I just happen to be aware that they don’t love me, and I certainly wouldn’t trust them with my secrets.
The plot follows a young boy named Atari who is on a mission to rescue his dog Spot from Trash Island, aka the Isle of Dogs. Atari is a consummate canine caretaker, training some of the dogs of Trash Island and distributing sacred puppy snaps (biscuits). In what is undeniably the best scene in the entire movie, Atari produces a small grooming kit and thoroughly bathes and styles Chief, the surly stray voiced by Bryan Cranston.
The movie handles the communication gap between dogs and man better than any other talking-dog movie I’ve seen, and a lot of that comes down to an emphasis on basic understanding juxtaposed with a hard language barrier. Atari speaks directly to the dogs of Trash Island, and they listen attentively, understanding his Japanese about as well as I can. Similarly, the dogs speak to Atari and he gives them a blank stare. Has your dog ever come puttering into the room, whining about something and looking concerned? And you glance down at them, unsure if you should be grabbing the leash because they have to poop or the shotgun because your house is being raided by marauding cannibals? Isle of Dogs captures that moment of incomprehension brilliantly.
The movie suffers from one giant, oozing blemish that makes me cringe. In this Japanese town, there is a little white, American girl who is obnoxiously written and could be jettisoned from the story without any major consequences. In typical Hollywood fashion, this little white girl exists to save the poor Japanese natives from themselves. It’s an unfortunate choice given the otherwise high quality of the movie. To use a pertinent analogy, she is to Isle of Dogs what heartworm pills are to a Kraft single.
Throughout human history and into the present, dogs have worked in medicine, military, law enforcement, entertainment, and sport. Even the fluffiest, tiniest dog serves as a therapist, an alarm system, and an icebreaker. Isle of Dogs builds a powerful narrative around this odd and touching symbiosis, and is not to be missed by any dog lover.