BY FIEL ESTRELLA
Isle of Dogs has all the makings of a quintessential Wes Anderson film: It’s stylish and atmospheric, showcasing incredible artistry and attention to detail through production design.
It follows a ragtag bunch of misfits—who may or may not see themselves as a family—and has no shortage of precocious children. There’s that undeniable feeling to it, as though you are lost in time. But no matter how comfortably familiar it appears, the long-awaited follow-up to The Grand Budapest Hotel and the director’s second stop-motion animated feature after Fantastic Mr. Fox has managed to go even further beyond the box, especially when it comes to world-building and themes.
Written, produced, and directed by Anderson, Isle of Dogs boasts an all-star cast that includes the filmmaker’s mainstays (Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Tilda Swinton) and Japanese voice actors (Yoko Ono, Ken Watanabe, and Kunichi Nomura). With a retro-futuristic Japan as its backdrop, it tells of a dystopian future in which all dogs have been banished by the government to a “trash island” due to a widespread canine flu. When a 12-year-old orphan boy crash lands his tiny plane, desperately searching for his beloved companion, a group of four-legged outcasts take it upon themselves to accompany him on his journey.
FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES
FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES
The film’s representation of the featured country’s culture is not without flaws: The cast is comprised mostly of American actors who aren’t of Japanese descent. The dogs, who have the most dialogue, speak in English—a funny detail being that puppies cry and gurgle like human babies—while almost all human characters speak in Japanese, presented without subtitles to evoke the feeling of communication between pets and people, consisting mostly of context clues. The implication is that the movie is largely for English speakers, resulting in perhaps an inadvertent “othering” of people who are actually from Japan.
Still, despite a need for a more organic integration of Japanese culture to its plot and universe—it tends to stick to certain cliches like sumo wrestlers and the haiku form of poetry—Isle of Dogs comes off as appreciative and respectful, and it’s easy to see why Anderson chose such a setting. A particularly smart choice that paid off wonderfully was to intersperse the stop-motion footage with two-dimensional anime-inspired sequences and elaborate paintings inspired by the ukiyo-e art movement.
The movie deviates from the tone of its predecessors in a number of ways. The color palette is more muted and the trademark glib deadpan humor gets a little darker, which turns out to be enjoyable. It’s also evidently Anderson’s first real foray into science fiction, robots and a deadly virus included.
But what truly sets it apart is how blatantly politically charged it is: “Unwanted” dogs are being forced out of the country. The government, led by a ruthless mayor, continuously churns out conspiracy after conspiracy and propaganda after propaganda. (“Brains have been washed, wheels have been greased, fears have been mongered.”) The sole English-speaking human, an American foreign exchange student and cub reporter, leads a protest-heavy rebellion and outright declares that she hates authority—twice. The garbage dump that becomes home to the dogs can even be seen as a commentary on the environment. When it all comes together, it does a surprisingly good job of reflecting the histories we’ve lived, and ongoing unrest in several countries.
Anderson’s real achievement is being able to balance his powerful message with a emotionally gripping journey at its heart (and a fantastic and pleasing sushi making sequence!). It’s as much about a boy and his dog, the love and bond we have with pets, as it is about a nation that learns to stand on its own once more. And ultimately, this romp through a not-quite-barren wasteland stands to remind us of the things truly worth fighting for: any and all definitions of family, freedom and the common good, and of course, dogs.
Isle of Dogs screens exclusively at select Ayala Malls Cinemas beginning May 30.