I usually dread dog movies. More often than not, they’re unapologetically emotional wallows. They invite the worst kind of sentimentality, providing never-ending excuses for unchecked sappiness. (I’m looking at you “Marley and Me,” “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale,” “A Dog’s Purpose,” etc.) The cheapest form of audience manipulation there is.
That’s not a problem with Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” even given the fact that it focuses on a 12-year-old boy’s desperate search for his missing dog.
For starters, all the dogs – and there are a lot of dogs, over 30 on the movie poster alone – are stop-motion models. (This is Anderson’s second stop-motion animated film, after “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”) So that immediately puts them at one step removed.
Secondly, all the dogs on the island live lives independent of humans. Whatever connection they may have once felt for human companionship is lost once they land on the island. The dogs now bond not with their one-time “owners” but rather with each other, in packs.
And finally, these dogs live in a Wes Anderson world which means the parallels with the real world are tangential at best. His signature style of obsessive whimsy and deadpan wit proves to be the perfect antidote to the sloppy emotionalism of much canine cinema.
Nonetheless, despite all these distancing techniques, “Isle of Dogs” still manages to ring true, to human nature, to the nature of dogs, and to the much treasured connection between the two.
“Isle of Dogs” is set at a time of crisis in a fictional Japanese city of Megasaki about 20 years in the future.
“Canine saturation has reached epidemic proportions. An outbreak of snout fever rips through the city of Megasaki. Blizzards of infected fleas, worms, ticks, and lice menace the citizenship. Dog flu threatens to cross the species threshold and into the human disease pool.”
The mean-spirited mayor decides to quarantine all dogs, each and every one of them uprooted from their homes and exiled to Trash Island forever. There they’re left to scavenge for food amidst the garbage bags dumped on the island.
“Listen. Before we attack each other and tear ourselves to shreds like a pack of maniacs, let’s just open the sack first and see what’s actually in it. It might not even be worth it. A rancid apple core, two worm-eaten banana peels, a moldy rice cake, a dried up pickle, tuna sardine buns, a pile of broken egg shells, an old gizzard with maggots all over it … Okay, it’s worth it.”
Depressed by their exile, many of the dogs have lost their lust for life, so it’s up to a dog named Chief to rally their spirits.
“Nobody’s giving up around here and don’t you forget it. Ever. You’re Rex. You’re King. You’re Duke. You’re Boss. I’m Chief. We’re a pack of scary, indestructible alpha dogs.”
The sneeze at the end of that clip is a classic Wes Anderson touch. A seemingly minor detail that works on so many levels: it’s funny, it’s revealing, it undercuts what had just been said, and it “humanizes” the dogs even further.
That’s a lot of work for an apparent throwaway gag. And the film is full of these sneezes, both literally – a lot of the dogs cough or sneeze, since they’re not exactly well-cared for – and figuratively. Anderson very consciously litters his movies with sidebar trifles, to the delight of his fans. An absolutely brilliant scene, for instance, involves a madcap demonstration of sushi preparation that is as impressive as it is unnecessary to the telling of the tale.
It’s Anderson’s hyper-constructions that often lead critics to complain about his fussiness, his belabored preciousness. He’s just too cutesy for his own good, goes the argument.
But I maintain his twee tendency is nicely balanced with an undergirding of darkness and yes, real feeling. There are obvious political overtones, for instance, embedded in a plot that falsely scapegoats an entire breed of animal and exiles them all to a trash heap. The politics is not too heavy-handed, but it’s clear enough to register.
And as for its emotional center, “Isle of Dogs” is not above a big dose of canine-human rapprochement by the end.
“Are you going to help him?
Why should I?
Because he’s a 12-year-old boy. Dogs love those.”
I know, that’s verging on sappy. But wait, I feel another sneeze coming on.