Wes Anderson’s Canine Kinship

Isle of Dogs presents an "earthy and elemental" expression of the human element that Anderson's live-action works sometimes fail to capture

click to enlarge Boss (voiced by Bill Murray) in Isle of Dogs - Photo: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
Photo: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
Boss (voiced by Bill Murray) in Isle of Dogs

For most of his career, I have had a begrudging respect for the fastidious aesthetic of Wes Anderson. There is an undeniable craft on display in every single frame that he composes, one that is meticulous and filled with obvious wit. His films live and breathe in the minute, with carefully orchestrated details of the somewhat hermetically sealed worlds of his characters. 

From 1996’s Bottle Rocket to 2014’s Grand Budapest Hotel, the characters in his live-action films are archly sketched types, too smart by a noticeable degree and too easily bothered by the mundane world around them. It almost always feels like they exert a force of will or personality to alter their realities. That was the effect of Wes-world. That sense came, first and foremost, from the writer-director, as if the characters were merely a collection of variations of his own persona, and it was Anderson sharing his dreamscape with us.

So where does that leave his two stop-motion animation works — 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and now Isle of Dogs? I would argue that these films, which put the artifice at the forefront, offer a truer expression of the human element because we know and recognize that these characters are stand-ins. They aren’t simply human markers or placeholders (better yet, not avatars). We understand that the animals represent ideals and principles that his humans fail to achieve, but the animals still have faults, failings and primal urges utterly familiar to us. They are not abstractions, as I sometimes feel Anderson allows his live-action human characters to become.

In Isle of Dogs, which is set in Japan, the canines have been exiled to a trash heap of an island after a severe case of dog flu overtakes their population and threatens the routine stability of human life. There we meet the characters. Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston) is a rascally stray perpetually on the verge of a sharp biting attack because he is wounded and unfamiliar with human contact. He might want to be Man’s Best Friend, but life hasn’t given him a reason to trust a man enough to be loyal. 

His cohorts on the island are Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), who all have pleasant memories of human companionship — the voice work of these actors seems to lovingly mimic the rhyme and rhythms of their characters’ former masters. So when Atari (Koyu Rankin) steals a plane and crash-lands on the isle in search of his own exiled dog, it comes as no surprise that Rex is able to convince the others to help the young boy. Even Chief supports the pack, but he always starts off pulling as the others push forward.

In Anderson’s live-action features, his actors usually have to invest their characters with their own personal charisma and warmth, as Anderson seems to resist doing that for them in his screenplays and removed directing style. Bill Murray, for instance, seems to perpetually be playing “Bill Murray” in Anderson projects; we enjoy him for being himself, but we know he’s never going to cut loose and give us even more of his prismatic charm, because that would unsettle the ironically detached Anderson vibe.

But here, I found a real sense of kinship among the dogs. And the magic of Isle of Dogs is in full-bloom in their interactions. We see their unity of purpose, but also understand that it is not always cohesive from the onset. Chief chafes under the quickly proclaimed leadership of Rex. It would be easy to see the pack as a collection of alpha dogs — that is how Chief envisions them — but they aren’t. Yet, the interplay between Chief and Rex never results in the antagonistic conflict we might assume. Anderson shows us how each of these willful characters bends without breaking. 

And in doing so, Anderson loosens up, too. Isle of Dogs is earthy and elemental in its depiction of human qualities, and it’s a blueprint that hopefully the writer-director will learn to apply to his future live-action films. A film is more than just the carefully appointed details of its frames. (Now playing) (PG-13) Grade: B+

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