I am writing this review on my birthday. I know, what a nerd. One of the joys of a birthday, if not being productive, is getting love and support from friends and family. One of the phone calls I got this morning are from two of my best friends, a husband and wife duo that I helped get together. Though all the credit goes to them for being a great couple, I do take pride in the fact that I had a hand in its beginning. Still, the wife had to give me a hard time for harshly criticizing the Scream franchise. Apologies to her, but let us just chalk that one up to having different cinematic tastes. Speaking of her tastes, I know of no other person more dedicated to dogs than her. I have been in the car with her at the wheel when, spotting a particularly desirable canine to her liking, she suddenly pulled over, gets out, and goes to pet the animal. I like dogs too, but I do not inconvenience traffic to show my appreciation. When you know a lover of man’s best friend like her, any time you see anything related to dogs, she immediately comes to mind. This was the case while watching Isle of Dogs (2018) last night. Hopefully, this review will atone for the negativity I expressed for Scream.
Isle of Dogs is Wes Anderson’s second animated film, and what a film it is. It is set in a fictional Japanese city called Megasaki. It focuses on the relationship between dogs and their human owners. Unfortunately, there is a serious, cold-like infection that is causing problems for the canine population. In a speech reminiscent of a Soviet premier, Mayor Kenji Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura), after twenty years of living with this problem and propaganda films depicting ravenous beasts turning on their owners, attacking them, and/or affecting them, he announces that he is ordering all dogs rounded up and banished to Trash Island. In attendance at this assembly are a few key dissenting figures. The one being allowed to speak is the chief of the so-called Science Party, Professor Watanabe (voiced by Akira Ito), who disputes the danger posed by the dogs and claims to be close to a serum that will cure the disease. This falls on deaf ears, much to the anger of a pro-dog group led by foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (voiced by Greta Gerwig). Another aggrieved person on hand is Mayor Kobayahi’s nephew and ward, Atari Kobayashi (voiced by Koyu Rankin). It is his dog Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber), bred to also be his protector, that is among the first to rounded up and dumped across the bay at Trash Island. A few months go by and conditions on the island, as you might imagine given its name, are desperate. The dogs have begun to form themselves in packs, one of which is headed by a dirty stray named Chief (voiced by Brian Cranston), though he insists that his packmates are all leaders. One day after fighting off another group for scraps, they notice a small plane struggling over the island, crashing nearby. When they make it over to the crash site, they find an unconscious Atari. The others want to help Atari, particularly when they learn the boy is there in search of his long-lost pet, something no other owner has done to this point. Chief, being a lifelong stray, is against this course of action. What convinces him is a chance meeting with a more recent arrival, the female show dog named Nutmeg (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Hoping to impress Nutmeg, Chief agrees to join the search for Spots. Meanwhile, back in Megasaki City, Mayor Kobayashi learns that Atari has gone to Trash Island, and mounts a couple of unsuccessful rescue missions. When they fail, he claims that dogs on the island killed his ward. This lie provides Mayor Kobayashi the impetus to do two more dastardly deeds. The first is to ignore Professor Watanabe when his serum finally proves successful, after which the Science Party leader is assassinated. Next, it gives him the go-ahead he needs to devise a sort of canine final solution, which he plans to soon unleash. Keeping tabs on Mayor Kobayashi’s plottings is Tracy and her friends. She is also able to uncover the fact that Professor Watanabe discovered a cure, and she plans to use this information against Mayor Kobayashi at his next public appearance. As for Atari and his companions’ quest, he and Chief become separated from each other, which leads to them forming a bond. This is made stronger when Chief submits to a bath by Atari, which reveals that he is a dead ringer for Spots, only with a different colored nose. When they finally locate Spots, they find that Atari’s former guard has started a life of his own, and is expecting puppies. They then devise a plan to return to Megasaki City to oppose Mayor Kobayashi, a mission made all the more urgent when an owl informs them of the mayor’s plan to exterminate all the dogs. When they arrive, it is after Tracy’s attempt to effect change is brutally rebuffed. Seeing Atari alive is an embarrassment, and the scandal is added to when the serum is shown to work. The final straw comes when Atari reads a haiku he wrote for the occasion, which moves Mayor Kobayashi to resign. There is then a commotion, but when the dust settles, Atari is made mayor due to an arcane rule that makes Mayor Kobayashi’s next in-line his successor in cases of extreme disgrace. And all the humans and dogs live happily ever-after.
If you are reading this summary of Isle of Dogs, noticing the half Japanese, half Western sounding names, and wondering how this all works, Wes Anderson’s has you covered. In the beginning, there is a note that only some of the Japanese will be translated, but that all barks have been made into English. It is in keeping with the whimsy that is typical for Wes Anderson’s films. The stop-motion is also beautifully done, and perhaps even more magical than that of Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). They have a lot of fun with both the animation and translations, and they make for a rich viewing experience.
Also like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs asks fundamental questions about identity. Chief, for example, is, at first, proud to be a stray. Yet, it is his interactions with Atari that show him a different path. It all starts with a hug. It is amazing what affection can do for a person. The love God has for us is the ultimate expression of affection that anyone will ever know. These kinds of words have been said before, and I do not mean to cheapen them. I will simply remind you that the whole of Salvation history is about love. Everything done from the moment of creation until now has had God’s loving hand in it, always. We are called to imitate that love in any way we can, including going after missing pets. What I would point to here is the transformative power of these acts. Jesus launched a Faith. Atari tamed a wild beast. In the grand scheme of things, there is no comparing the two. What I take comfort in when I witness deeds great and small is that God sees no difference, only that we show the love to others that He shows us.
I hope this review of Isle of Dogs convinces my friend to see the movie, even if it does do my usual trick of spoiling the entire movie. Either way, I think it is a great film. When I got done watching it last night, my first thought was, “This is a million and a half times better than the load of crap that we usually see.” I stand by that statement, and I think it is safe for basically any audience, despite the PG-13 rating.