I have a “confession” to make … I am not really a Wes Anderson fan. If I am honest, his films have never interested me. So you can imagine my surprise when I recently found myself sitting in a screening of his latest film, the star-studded stop-motion feature, Isle of Dogs.
Set in Japan in the not too distant future, Isle of Dogs tells the story of Atari Kobayashi, the 12-year-old ward of the corrupt mayor of Megasaki City. The film starts with the seemingly cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi issuing an executive order which calls for the immediate removal of all dogs in the city to a garbage-dump outside the city limits (known as Trash Island). No canine companion is immune from this fate, not even Spot, Atari ‘s companion and guard dog. This action triggers young Atari on a quest to Trash Island to find his lost pet. With the aid of a pack of four-legged inhabitants of the island, Atari’s quest reveals itself to be much greater than simply the story of a boy searching for his pet dog.
Given my previously stated feelings on all things related to Wes Anderson, you are welcomed to be shocked by my overall reaction (I sure was) – which was overwhelmingly positive. There are many aspects that I enjoyed about Isle of Dogs, chief among them is the story itself (that always helps). The narrative (from a story created by Anderson, Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola and Kunichi Nomura) was engaging and struck the perfect balance between a whimsical, childhood adventure liberally sprinkled with a healthy dose of good humor. At the end of the screening, I found myself leaving the theater with a bit of a pleasant smile on my face.
Now I cop to not being the most literate when it comes to Japanese cinema, but I have been informed by friends and acquaintances with a better knowledge of such things, that there is definitely thematic and structural nods in Isle of Dogs to some of well-renowned auteurs. This point was reinforced when, in the past couple of weeks, I got a hint of this when I attended a screening of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood at this year’s TCM Film Festival (more to come on this soon). From musical transitions, cues etc., it is clear that Anderson wanted to convey how highly he regards storytelling from this part of the world.
On a related note, another aspect that I appreciated about the film is that as much as I could expect with such a film, Isle of Dogs played straight down the middle in terms of accessibility to an international audience. I can only imagine that great care was taken to make sure that the nods to and homages did not veer into the territory of appropriation. But I do understand that my take is more or less a matter of perspective; from my vantage point, Anderson and company acquitted themselves well. On the other hand, the fact that I am still thinking about this even weeks after seeing Isle of Dogs, means it is something that I was overly sensitive to, for better or worse. However, in the final analysis, it ended up being for the better – because in spite of my reservation, I still enjoyed the film.
First in limited release, Isle of Dogs is currently enjoying a wider (but still relatively small) theatrical run. If you can, I would definitely recommend you take a look out for it at your local movie theater as soon as possible; at the time this post gets published, it may be a little harder to find locally. If you find yourself in that situation, it is well worth investing the time for at home viewing.