You know that there was a temptation to make this one PG as well. After The Fantastic Mr. Fox, I was terrified that the MPAA would just see animation and minimal cursing and just decide that the movie would be PG. I always kind of wondered why most of Wes Anderson's films were considered R or PG. Isle of Dogs might be the perfect example of what a PG-13 movie should be. There's some disturbing stuff, but nothing too insane. I found it weird that I heard a kid talking in the movie behind me. There's some blood and language. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Wes Anderson
It's so good! Okay, there's more to it than that, but if you want to leave now and go see it in select theaters (how did Cincinnati make the "select theaters" list?), please do. You can read this later. Then you can argue with me if you want, but the movie really is very good. What makes it good, though, is that it has the tone of a Wes Anderson movie, but it doesn't simply rely on his normal storytelling methods to get him by. I love Wes Anderson, like a lot. I know that makes me a little bit of a hipster, but I am unapologetic when it comes to my admiration for his movies. But I also know that sometimes his plots and narratives get a bit lazy. I recently reviewed The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and was kind of blown away by how meandering the movie really was. The story for Life Aquatic really provided a template for a fun action movie, but it was really just a loose structure for Anderson to tell a bunch of jokes with Bill Murray at the helm. Instead, Isle of Dogs works mostly because it has a really tight plot with great characters involved in a very bizarre version of the near future.
I mean, the plot isn't the most impressive in the world. I am really praising it because all of the beats really work. There is a functional narrative and there is a certain need to know what is going to happen next. The story is fun and that's something that I haven't really seen in Anderson's movies before. Mostly, his films are great character studies. I thing Grand Budapest might have had a decent plot, but I've only seen that one once. (It's going to get a Criterion release someday, so why would I shell out cash for a version that's going to be replaced someday? What am I? Single Tim who did that often? Not likely.) Anderson still has pretty solid character stuff. I know that they're dogs, but what Anderson did with this one and Mr. Fox is intentionally juxtaposing very human personalities with their visual counterparts. They still have these fun characters. I can't, in all honestly, say that these characters are deep. I say that Anderson does these great character studies and I can stand by it, but they are also very thin. But they are fun character. Anderson isn't one for nuance and depth to his characters. This isn't absolute. Some of the characters in The Royal Tenenbaums are marvelously deep. Isle of Dogs doesn't really offer that. Chief, as the protagonist of the story, has a certain degree of depth. He is a dynamic character. But his character arc is similar to that of other movies. But, honestly, Chief as the protagonist is the least interesting part of the movie. (Sorry, Brian Cranston. You did a great job, but the character is playing across from Edward Norton, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum. That's a challenge if I've ever seen one.) It's the world that he built that is way more interesting.
This world is absolutely bizarre. I'm seeing a lot of articles that Anderson has the white man's idea of Japan rather than an actual understanding of that. I don't know if I'm qualified to comment on that. They might have a point, but I am interested in how Anderson views the bizarre near future. I know it might be irresponsible to divorce the two, but I think that Anderson's view of Japan and how silly he is about the secret politics of cats oddly works. It's no mistake that the movie is named after the setting of the film. I don't want to downplay anyone's upset about the cultural appropriation that may be going on, but the movie only really kind of works with this as its backdrop. Yeah, there are a lot of jokes at its expense, but Anderson is really trying to go out of his way to avoid hitting a lot of Orientalism with this movie. Sure, he hits a couple of beats that, in isolation, would be cringy. But the movie treats the future Japan / Megasaki as a fleshed out, real world. Yeah, there is a white character, but she doesn't really read as the White Savior. (I'm paraphrasing the crap out of a New York Times article right now. I apologize.) Could this take place in the U.S.? Sure, but the tone would be all wrong. Honestly, I don't think I could take another thinly veiled Trump allegory. The man is primed for parody, but I've just seen so many takes on that character. I don't think anything new would be presented. Instead, there is this richly detailed land comprised of two dueling worlds. There is Megasaki, a world bordering on a police state that is comical yet a little terrifying. Then there is Trash Island, a world that is disgusting and terrifying, yet hides this weirdly rich history that is super-dee-duper cool. Anderson's details have always been on the Twee side. They are always hip versions of reality and the details are bordering on what fun artistic details can be added. In Dogs, he goes to a new level. There are the details that we would see in Rushmore, but he's creating his own fictional land that takes it to a new level. He does that thing I really like in cinema where he makes the ugly look gorgeous. Isle of Dogs has to bring in something new to the conversation. A lot of "White Japan" goes in with the attitude of "Wouldn't it be cool if we set it in Japan?" That tends to lead to stereotypes and a Western attitude forcing itself where it doesn't belong. I honestly get the vibe that Wes Anderson made this movie out of love. While it may not be his place to make an authentically Japanese film, he treats the Japanese stuff with such a level of respect. I'm now probably the worst person to be commenting on this, considering the image that graces my front page. But none of this is just "cool" to him. It seems like he has a desire to understand and that's pretty nifty. But again, you can just tell me to go to heck and that's probably an equally valid comment.
I mentioned that this isn't Anderson's funniest movie. It is definitely funny, but it also worries less about being funny than his other works. I will say that Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum crush in this movie. They are utilized perfectly. (Sorry, John. You are smarter than I am, but "utilized" sounds right...which is a terrible thing for an English teacher to use as a justification.) They are in small doses and everything they say is absolutely the best thing that their characters can say. It's so weird because they are all throughout the movie. But they are actually serving a better purpose. They are the comic relief. I know that a guy like Wes Anderson, who has exclusively made comedies, must be tempted to make everyone a comic relief. Instead, there are funny moments that the straight characters play, but they are still pursuing their own goals. Like, Harvey Keitel is in the movie. His part is absolutely minuscule and it is hilarious. But he doesn't say anything funny. A lot of the belly laughs that come from this movie is the fact that these performances are said so well and performed so realistically that you can't help but laughing how these are dogs fighting robot dogs. The concept is so silly, but Anderson nails an overall funny tone without actually having to be wildly clever. When the movie needs to be clever, it is. I'm not trying to say that any part falls flat or fails to be clever. But Anderson knows what tone to set and when to break that tone. It's pretty fantastic. As such, I feel like the scale of Isle of Dogs might be the most ambitious one yet. I'm thinking of the bigger movies that he's made (Zissou, Darjeeling Limited, and Grand Budapest) and this movie just somehow feels bigger. Honestly, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, despite the fact that it shares an animation style, seems small in comparison. There is just this understanding of the big picture that I haven't really seen from him in other movies. I wonder if this movie was intimidating to make. He focuses so well on the small and the big simultaneously. It just feels like there had to be a million balls in the air and Anderson juggled each one flawlessly.
Isle of Dogs isn't my favorite Anderson, but I really liked it. My wife asked me if I'd ever watch it again and I almost feel like I have to. There's so much here to digest and it is so funny that Anderson can master a medium like animation considering that he's a traditionally live-action director. This movie rocks so hard and I'm a little worried that I'm just riding the high of it being my last Wes Anderson movie. Regardless, I really dug this one and I hope I'm not crazy for thinking that it is great.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.