Isle of Dogs (2020 Recap, Part II)
Updated: Mar 9, 2021
As you may remember from my last post talking about 2020, I admitted that the events we had to deal with that year reminded me of a certain movie I saw not too long ago because of how it addressed them before it even happened.
The movie I speak of happens to be none other than Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs.
The story took place in Megasaki City, Japan, 20 years into the future, and dogs were starting to be frowned upon by humans after they were reported for carrying dog flu and snout fever amongst the people of the Uni Prefecture. So, they ultimately decreed that all the dogs, domesticated and stray, were to be banished to Trash Island to maintain their health and ensure a more steady quarantine.
While on Trash Island, a dog named Chief, voiced by Bryan Cranston, along with four other dogs, Rex, Duke, King, and Boss, were scavenging for food on the island when they witnessed a young boy traveling to the island in the hopes of finding his dog, who also ended up on Trash Island. The boy's name was Atari, and the dog's name was Spots. Once Chief and the rest of his pack caught on to his dilemma, they promised him to help find his missing dog, while Chief had some misgivings about the boy, claiming that he was no pet to be trained by a human, like Atari.
Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, the mayor, Kenji Kobayashi, along with his Assistant Hatchet-Man, Major Domo, prepared to win themselves a second term in office partially to continue pushing the dog-banishing agenda, much to the frustration of Professor Watanabe, who claimed to have developed a vaccine that would have helped cure the dog flu and turn things to normal. It also aroused suspicions from Tracy Walker, a transfer student from the USA who, along with a rogue band of protesting schoolchildren, rallied up against Kobayashi and demanded that the dogs be brought back to Megasaki and the conspiracies surrounding them to end.
Sounds like a complicated story, I know. But one of the things I cherished the most about this movie was how high in creativity that story was. At a time when many animated movies were either indie productions or blockbuster sequels, Isle of Dogs came in to breathe new life into the art form with a fresh, invigorating story centering on the bond between a boy and his dog. It's just the circumstances at hand that propelled it into a state of uniqueness and collective charm: the dogs got banished by a major force of authority while a young boy came to that settlement to find his lost dog. It’s charming while also being told with a dashing flavor of grandeur to make the story more engaging and thrilling.
And let's not forget the sense of humor that Isle of Dogs carried. Typical of Anderson fare, Isle of Dogs told its story with an oddball approach that most often lightened the mood. It also allowed the characters to engage in either bizarrely complex or skittishly awkward conversations about what's going through their minds or what they're each witnessing at any given moment. The result is a collage of weird yet quirky and droll banters and delightfully off-kilter jokes.
And, to be honest, I liked how the movie presented some potentially bleak scenarios, with ominous implications, concerning the characters only to upend them afterward with situations that proved otherwise. For example, in the beginning, we last saw Spots standing by himself in his cage in the middle of Trash Island after he was transported there, and then, the next time we saw that same spot, all that's left, and discovered by Chief, Atari, and the pack, was a cage with skeletal remains of a dog and a tag with the letters S-P-O on it, hinting that Spots starved to death before they found him. But then, after they left, Boss dug further into the cage and discovered that the name on the tag was SPORT, meaning that they were two letters off from identifying the dog inside that cage and that Spots was somehow still out and about. Another example of that was when Atari, Chief, and the pack rode the trash lifts working out their next plan until Chief and Atari split off from Rex, Boss, King, and Duke, and then, the four dogs ventured into the trash grinding compactor, making it look like the pack was to be left shredded alive there and never to be seen again. Later on, however, the movie revealed that the pack was still alive, mostly because the machinery of the compactor was running slow. In situations like this, it was almost like the movie set up something discomforting by saying:
And so, what you are about to witness is the sudden tragedy that had befallen them.
Only to pull one on us each time and say:
Ha! Just kidding. They only just dodged a bullet.
I liked how the movie was shot, too. It employed a variation of scenes that placed characters or objects in one particular spot or were so mesmerizing, that the pose alone was meant to be admired on an artistic level. This was also typical of Anderson fare since he was famous for the symmetric shots and angles in his films. Sometimes, the placement of the characters was also done in ways to emphasize their intimacy, allowing us to get a stronger reading of the characters' contemplations every time.
This leads to the next subject that I want to bring to attention about Isle of Dogs: the animation. It is just stellar. The atmosphere was so aggrandizing but also so encompassing, while the locations and sets were very nicely detailed. Benefiting them further was the colors and structures of the Japanese cities and landscapes, which lent the movie a stronger sense of culture and traditionalism.
Even the movement of the characters seemed to match the wry style of Wes Anderson; sometimes, they were slow, awkward, and intimate, while other times, they were fast-paced and heightened the energy a little bit. Now, this was not Wes Anderson's first venture in animation. In 2009, he made his mark on animation when he adapted Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox into an animated film, and he did so with striking visuals, a clever spin on the story, and a centralized focus on the characters. Thankfully, Anderson brought all those qualities into Isle of Dogs, but with a different aesthetic. Unlike Fantastic Mr. Fox, which was vibrant and bright - and mostly orange - Isle of Dogs was more grayish and sometimes dark, which, on the contrary, felt more in line with the movie's more aggressive tone. Not only that, but it was also clever about using stop-motion animation to convey real-life situations, whereas when those events were broadcast on live TV or recorded, they were conveyed in 2D animation. Even better, it's not just any 2D animation; it carried some of the same styles of the classic Japanese paintings. In a way, they, too, added a level of traditionalism to this movie.
While I'm at it, let's talk about the characters. They all embodied a sense of imperfection and oddball natures that made Wes Anderson a household name. Atari was a skillful, brave young boy and pilot whose flight skills paved the way for all the revelations he and the dogs would've encountered. And I will admit, Atari talking about how he was willing to find Spots, even if he would've died trying, was unusual to hear from someone his age, and yet it still felt in-character.
Tracy Walker, while not quite the most compelling character, was still delightful on account of her spunky attitude and determination to settle the score with the higher-ups of Megasaki.
I noticed some people express misgivings over her character, mostly because they thought of her as being emblematic of the term 'white savior'. And while I can see that kind of denotation turning off some people, I just don't see the issue here with Tracy. The reason I feel that way is because it would've been problematic if Isle of Dogs made it look like she was the only one in Megasaki to catch onto the conspiracies that kept Megasaki within their grasp. Except...you also have Atari as he set out to find Spots. Now, I'm about to venture into spoiler territory from now on, so, be warned as you tread through this.
Atari was the nephew and ward of Mayor Kobayashi, as he was taken in after a train accident he went through, which left him without a right kidney and his parents dead. And, because he was concerned for his safety, he and Major Domo introduced Atari to Spots, who was assigned to be his bodyguard-dog. Atari, of course, saw it as far more than just a bodyguard relationship, so when Spots became the first dog to be exiled to Trash Island, this gave Atari the idea to hijack a nearby plane and veer it into Trash Island to find him. So, in a sense, his motive to search for Spots was also a rebellion in and of itself against the Megasaki decree on all dogs being banished to Trash Island. And let's not forget the local Japanese schoolchildren who joined Tracy to complain about the unjust actions exulted against the city's canine companions, including their own. If they, along with Atari, shared Tracy's thoughts on taking action against immoral activities, then who says conviction over a certain cause can't transcend countries?
And then, you have the dogs themselves.
Chief, the head dog - or so he liked to think - was a perfectly nuanced, rough, but still conscientious mutt who came to understand what compassion and love were as he went on his journey with Atari, especially when he compared it to his background as a stray before moving to Trash Island. The other dogs in his pack, Rex, King, Duke, and Boss, each conveyed an amusing collage of quirks, quips, and camaraderie as they ventured into Trash Island with Chief. Duke liked to share whatever rumors he heard, Boss was the mascot dog for a high school baseball team, King used to be the sponsor of a Dog Food chain, and Rex seemed like the most honorable dog in the group, clearly thinking of ideas and solutions to the dilemmas each of the dogs faced. This was funny, too, because at one point, when they were down on their luck, Chief gave them a pep talk by encouraging them to do whatever is necessary to fend for themselves in times of crises, and even brought up that since the five of them were named after a particular title of authority, this should allow them to consider equal amounts of participation in their quests and decision-making. Of course, more often than not, it seemed like Rex was the natural leader of the pack. Out of the canine quintet, he was the one calling off the most shots, mostly by saying,
All in favor of (put evasive action here), say aye.
And even though Chief insisted that all five of them should get an equal say on the matter, it seemed like Chief wanted to be the leader of the pack, resulting in him and Rex butting heads sometimes. This showed a level of insecurity with Chief, and it made him more relatable.
From the little we saw of him, Spots, the Kobayashi dog, felt like he was fit to live as nothing more than a bodyguard-dog like he was tasked to do. Of course, when he was sent to Trash Island and met some of the local dogs there, including what the island dwellers believed were a pack of cannibal dogs led by Gondo, he started to see the values of love and true honorability, making him also a compelling character.
At one point, we even saw a female dog who caught the attention of Chief more than once named Nutmeg. Initially rumored to be making moves on another dog, she was shown to be an innocent dog who seemed a bit cautious of what dog she's going out with. And, she was allegedly good with circus acts, as she demonstrated through some of her acrobatic skills.
One of the biggest parts of the movie that always left me impressed was the voice cast. For starters, it consisted of classic comedian and Anderson veteran Bill Murray (Boss), plus Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston (Chief), the MCU's Scarlett Johannson (Nutmeg), acclaimed actor Ken Watanabe (as a head surgeon), Jurassic Park's Jeff Goldblum (Duke), Pulp Fiction's Harvey Keitel (Gondo), and even Fargo's Frances McDormand (Interpreter Nelson). It's one thing to have an all-star cast, but the good news is many of the performances from the actors were equally as terrific. Whether it's in English or Japanese, they were all colorful impressions that gave the characters a sense of believability backed up beautifully by the movie's sense of humor.
Another part of Isle of Dogs that continually left me in awe was the music by Alexandre Desplat. Very whimsical one moment, emotional in another, and masterfully epic in others, the music synced perfectly with the comedic aspects of Wes Anderson's filmmaking while also being deeply rooted in the exotic rhythms of Japanese culture. This felt like the perfect bridge - no pun intended - between both aspects of the movie as it transported us into the movie and helped boost our emotional involvements within.
There was only one thing in the whole movie that I never fully understood, though. And believe it or not, it was the relationship between Tracy and Nutmeg. You see, during one of Tracy's protest rallies, the protestors held up photographs of dogs with names on them, and that clued me in that these dogs used to belong to the protestors before they were yanked away from them and transferred to Trash Island. And when Tracy held hers up, it had the picture of Nutmeg on it. So, if that's the case, how did Tracy know Nutmeg, especially since she was a transfer student from the USA, anyway? During the times I saw this movie, and that included when I saw it in theaters, that was the most glaring hole I caught in the movie's plot. I ended up with two hunches about this thing. One may have been that Tracy and the protestors were supporting certain individual dogs on Trash Island by holding up signs of the dogs they supported. After all, that may have been manageable thanks to the advanced technology allowing tail and teeth identification in dogs. And my second theory, the one I think is the most legible, could be that the dogs whose pictures the protestors held in their rallies belonged to them, anyway. If so, this made me wonder if Nutmeg belonged to Tracy even before they went to Japan – in which case, Nutmeg's circus acts may have been of American origin – or if Tracy met Nutmeg and adopted her during Tracy's time in Japan before Nutmeg was taken away from her. If any of you Isle of Dogs fans reading this know the story behind Tracy and Nutmeg's relationship, please let me know. I'd love to hear what you have to say about it.
And another thing, it wasn't until recently when I saw that Ken Watanabe voiced a head surgeon in Isle of Dogs instead of Professor Watanabe. Wouldn't it have been a perfect match if Watanabe voiced Watanabe? Ah, well. At the end of the day, I still think the actors did an amazing job here.
So, now, why am I talking about Isle of Dogs, an animated movie released almost three years ago, in response to everything we witnessed from 2020? Because while it would still be a stretch to compare this movie to anything we witnessed from that year, it still brought certain issues into attention that only became more of a primary focus because of that year. A disease outbreak that jeopardized the health and well-being of a populated area? Check. The disease being taken advantage of for political means? Check. Small groups of people protesting about the ongoing political misdeeds? Check. A vaccine being developed to combat against the disease only to be held back by other extreme means? Triple check!
Isle of Dogs started super strong with an original, creative story, exquisite animation, engaging characters, a rich yet ominous atmosphere, juicily dry humor, and a stupendous voice cast. Now, with 2020 behind us, and the issues I mentioned being brought into the forefront, I noticed something else seep through from this movie like the Sakura blossoms of Japan: relevance. Even better, the story of Atari, Chief, and the others finding lost dogs and digging into the conspiracies floating around managed to bind them all together and form an off-kilter and surprisingly edgy but still charming movie.
As we batten down the hatches and pray for the end of COVID-19, there's always a nice little nudge somewhere to assure us of the likelihood of companionship, as well as of hope being around the corner, too. Isle of Dogs, possibly thanks to its newfound relevance, might become the nudge we need.
My Rating: A-
Update (1/1/2021): At one point, Isle of Dogs showed up-close shots of the dogs' tags, including Nutmeg's. And according to hers, she was from the "Megasaki Society of Pure-Bred Show-Dogs". With that in mind, I'm almost convinced now that Tracy either respected Nutmeg when she first saw her there, or that she adopted her during her time in Japan, or that Tracy wrote her up for that facility from America. Who knows?
Word to the Wise
One other thing to bear in mind about Isle of Dogs is that, for all its charm, it is also rated PG-13. The reason is that it has plenty moments of gore, blood, brief shots of nudity, and some moderate language, half of it being canine puns.