Wes Anderson adds another to his pantheon of beautifully crafted movies. Isle of Dogs, like his earlier Fantastic Mr. Fox, is a stop-motion animated film. The detail of the animation is breathtaking. The landscapes, the action, the dogs, even the food, are meticulously rendered.
The story takes place in the fictional city of Megasaki, Japan, about 20 years in the future. Dog flu has broken out among the canine population, and Mayor Kobayashi proclaims that all dogs will be banished to Trash Island. His rhetoric against dogs is reminiscent of the way that people have been vilified in history: Hitler turning German sentiment against the Jews, Americans sending their fellow citizens to Japanese internment camps, and some of the arguments against immigrants in the U.S. today. As the narration explains, “brains have been washed, wheels have been greased, fear has been mongered.”
The polluted, desolate, disease-ridden Trash Island suggests a post-war Nagasaki or Hiroshima. The dogs are thrown away like trash and left to fend for themselves.
Meanwhile, the mayor’s 12-year-old nephew Atari sets out to find his dog Spots on Trash Island.
Anderson borrows or pays homage to a number of Japanese art forms—drumming, woodblock prints, and haiku, to name a few. There’s a fine line between appropriation and appreciation of a different culture, and Anderson sometimes crosses that line. His characters sometimes turn into caricatures.
He also includes an odd “white savior” character—an American high school exchange student named Tracy. She alone seems able to pierce the veil of lies to see that the dogs are being treated unfairly—perhaps, in part, because while the dogs’ barks have all been “translated” to English, the human Japanese characters all speak Japanese. The only way non-Japanese viewers can know what is happening in the human world is through translators or other clever translation devices. Tracy can give a big speech in English, allowing the transmission of a bunch of important information to the viewer.
When Dr. Watanabe, the science party candidate, finds a cure for dog flu, the mayor ignores the evidence that the disease is curable, instead continuing to spread false information.
The way information is disseminated is a strong theme in the film. Whether it is Mayor Kobayashi’s misinformation campaign, or the rumors that the dogs whisper among themselves, no one seems to have the facts on which to to hang their convictions. Gossip takes on the sheen of truth and is eagerly spread.
In the age of Facebook and election meddling, this is a relevant issue. But it’s certainly not a modern problem. The apostle James warned early believers: “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire” (James 3:5-6). The tongue can be a powerful weapon, and words can change the course of a life or the course of history.
Isle of Dogs is a visual wonder, full of interesting things to look at and think about.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and violent images; this animation is not for younger children. On disc now. (FOX Searchlight)