There’s a window in your late teens and early 20’s where you have a chance to appreciate the idiosyncratic nature of Wes Anderson: old enough to get what he’s going for but not too jaded to dismiss it. Unfortunately for me, I tried watching his body of work when I was a little too young to appreciate it, thus spent the rest of my time eschewing his movies as best I could and completely missed the window where I would have been transfixed. Something about watching A-list stars acting deadpan and quirky was off-putting to me.
I watched some of his movies along the way. I saw Moonrise Kingdom and Fantastic Mr. Fox around the time each of them were released and ended up liking them slightly more than I had liked his films in the past. Simply put: I find his brand of goofiness easier to digest when it involves children or animation. It just feels better suited to the material. I found myself watching The Royal Tenenbaums recently (7 months ago) and I just couldn’t get past the painfully dry performances from Luke Wilson and Gwenyth Paltrow; it doesn’t feel right coming from adults.
I also hate seeing his movies (and other movies of his ilk) in packed theaters. I would much prefer to be alone. His fanbase gets so excited about his new releases that they end up being a more annoying crowd than the folks that turn up to see a Marvel movie on opening night. They have this tendency to laugh as loud as possible at every little comedic flare so that everyone in the theater knows how much they love Wes Anderson and how much they “get it.” Anderson’s movies are comical for sure but the aim isn’t go for big belly laughs; there are maybe two quick ones in each movie. To laugh so hard so often does a disservice to the gentle humor he’s trying to convey.
Naturally when I was dragged to see Isle of Dogs last night, I was dreading it. My girlfriend didn’t know it was opening night and didn’t realize the movie we were seeing, combined with the artsy theater we were seeing it at were going to attract a frenzy of Anderson die-hards like gnats to a light. I sat down in the packed theater and prepared for the worst. Initially, I was validated in my worry: Isle of Dogs opens with a comical little haiku, that should, at best, put a little smirk on your face. That didn’t happen. Of course, the entire theater was uproarious with laughter. Congrats people of Brooklyn: you get his humor. This continued in a similar fashion for the first 12 minutes or so and I wasn’t surprised, after all, his fans have been waiting four years for him to release a movie.
But then something happened that I’d never experienced in a screening of an Anderson movie before: people seemed to settle down once it got going. As soon as the pacing started to roll into motion and the audience became captivated in the charm of the story, they started appropriately responding to the comedy and in that moment, so did I. I was actually able to relax and just enjoy the movie and I have to say… the movie is pretty delightful.
Everything rolls along nicely and while I was at first a little apprehensive to tone of the animation, I came around to really enjoying the beat-up nature of it. It’s fitting; the movie takes place somewhere called Trash Island, so why not have the characters look like they’re covered in dirt? While watching, it starts to make sense why it took Anderson four years to make this; the animation is pretty meticulous in a way that feels a step above Fantastic Mr. Fox. There are some scenes that are so simple yet so perfectly crafted that the whole thing ends up looking easy (there is a brief scene everyone is talking about that involves making sushi that is an absolute pleasure to watch).
The world Anderson creates is really cool to watch both from a visual and storytelling standpoint. Some of the voice cast is a little underutilized (I’m fairly certain Scarlett Johannson spent a total of 40 minutes in the voiceover booth and Bob Baliban has said that he, Murray and Goldblum were only in there for about a day, maybe a bit more) but the ones we do spend time with are pretty fully realized, mainly Chief and Atari and the narration from Courtney B. Vance is honestly pretty great.
So what’s the point of Isle of Dogs? What is Anderson trying to say? I honestly am at a loss here. It’s not just the story of a boy and his dog. It’s not necessarily a “love letter to Japan,” (love letters to *insert place director loves here* are some of my least favorite kinds of movies; yeah, I’m looking at you, Boyhood) although it is clear Anderson has a great affinity for Japan and its culture. He’s trying to say something political but it’s either too obvious or too vague and I don’t know which. There are a lot of political overtones to it and that’s basically the thing about the movie that doesn’t work (more on that in a second). There is something of a Holocaust allegory that gets tacked on late in the movie that made me scratch my head.
So unfortunate piece of the movie is in the final act when the Holocaust allegory takes prominence and things start to fall apart a little bit, to the point where it almost seems like they had spent so much time on the movie that they scrapped a more fleshed out ending in favor of just wrapping things up quickly. It doesn’t ruin the movie but it isn’t as satisfying as the early scenes of just watching the dogs hang out on Trash Island are.
I can’t say that this movie makes me excited for the next Wes Anderson movie, especially if he goes back to live action but it does make me consider seeing another one. A movie as delightful as this is pretty hard to come by. In an age where we have superheroes being taken too seriously and five new horror movies every month, it’s nice to have something like Isle of Dogs come along to relieve us of unneeded stress in our lives.