The Power of Man's Best Friend
Despite the relatively small number of Wes Anderson’s films that I’ve seen, I would still call myself a Wes Anderson enthusiast, and I’ve been slowly making my way through his filmography as I dig myself deeper and deeper into my newest phase. This week I watched “Isle of Dogs,” (2018) a surprisingly grown up and mildly heart wrenching film with that classic Wes Anderson charm and very visually pleasing claymation style. “Isle of Dogs” follows a pack of dogs lead by lifelong stray Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston) as they journey to reunite the young and dedicated Atari Kobayashi with his exiled dog Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber). As this ragtag group of good boys journeys across the eponymous isle, Atari and Chief grow closer together and truly prove the undying loyalty of a dog to his boy.
As previously mentioned, I really liked the animation for this movie. It’s a really stylistic stop-motion claymation, and I feel like it just meshes so well with the tone of the movie. It’s sweet, but everything is kind of distinctly grungy. The dogs, who have all been exiled to Trash Island by the corrupt, dog-hating mayor of Megasaki, all look dirty and boney, and you can really tell that these poor guys have been on this island digging through trash for scraps for way too long. One thing I wasn’t expecting from this movie was some mild claymation gore, but I also went in with the (incorrect) impression that this was a children’s movie, and I’m absolutely not upset about it. I love a good stylistic choice, and one of the things that really made me smile every time was the way they animated fights; it’s just a wad of stuffing with various limbs and objects flailing about. I really loved it, and this film is full of fun little mannerisms like that.
Another somewhat controversial choice of Anderson’s was the decision to have nearly all of the human dialogue in untranslated Japanese. There is one American character who speaks English, and some lines are translated through an interpreter as if we’re watching foreign political debates via news broadcasts. I personally loved this. I feel like it really puts the movie into the point of view of the dogs! It’s not about the politics of Megasaki — it’s about dogs and people coming together to be the companions they were meant to be, despite an obvious language barrier.
The dogs don’t speak Japanese, and neither do I, but that doesn’t stop us from caring so deeply about Atari and deeply needing him to find his dog. The experience of loving your pet is just so universal; you don’t need any captions to understand what Atari is going through. Furthermore, I think the few translations allow for more impact on some heavier moments. One of the scenes that really stuck with me was a moment where we are getting our translations through an interpreter. As Mayor Kobayashi proposes the official decree to ban all dogs to Trash Island due to canine flu, the dogs seem to have no one on their side. However, Kobayashi’s opponent, Professor Watanabe, stands up and implores the people to wait just a bit longer, as he is on the brink of a cure to canine flu. The interpreter has been faithfully translating, but right at the end of Watanabe’s speech she pauses for a moment, before translating his closing line with such sorrow in her voice: “What ever happened to man’s best friend?” Oh my god. When I tell you I was fighting tears. As someone with dogs at home whom I miss very much, this really got me. I was honestly not expecting this movie to make me cry, and yet here we are. I fully believe that Wes Anderson is a genius, and that this moment would not have been the same with standard subtitles.
You’re obviously not escaping this article without hearing me talk about the score. It’s mostly written and performed by Alexandre Desplat, who previously worked with Anderson on “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” but you may also know him from “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” (parts 1 and 2), “Little Women,” and “The Imitation Game.” I am a longtime Desplat stan, and I was absolutely delighted to find that he had done the score for this movie. It’s so good, and it fits just perfectly. Much of it has a very heavy, percussive feel, which goes well with some of the heavier themes and emotional moments of the movie. I also really love that some of the pieces have a bit of a goofier, almost spy-movie-esque feel for some of the sillier sequences, and they do a great job of lightening the mood for a sweet little break in the middle of being intensely concerned over the fate of this boy and his dog.
As per usual, I really loved this movie. Honestly, I expected nothing less from my bestie Wes, but I still feel it needs to be said. It’s so sweet, and relatable, and full of love for dogs, it’s like animal abuse to not enjoy this movie. Literally, if I find out you didn’t like this movie, I’m calling ASPCA to report you. It’s a big victory for the dogs, and all the dog lovers! On the usual Haley "Good Time - Bad Time" scale, “Isle of Dogs” sits at a comfortable “crying happy tears for the love between a boy and his dog.”