Bryan Cranston. Edward Norton. Bill Murray. Jeff Goldblum. Greta Gerwig. Frances McDormand. Scarlett Johansson. Harvey Keitel. Tilda Swinton. Ken Watanabe. Liev Schreiber. Do I really need to say more? Do you really still care whether I think Isle of Dogs is a good movie? After reading that cast list, I wouldn’t. But since we’re her, let’s talk about what the film is about, and pretend it matters.
12 year old Atari (Koyu Rankin) flies to Trash Island to rescue his pet/bodyguard Spots. This is in a dystopian Japan where the ruling party has convinced a vast majority of the public that dogs are not good boys. All dogs are therefore exiled to Trash Island, where they have to survive in horrible conditions, fighting over garbage for food. While Atari is on the island, American foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) tries to start a revolution against the anti-dog ruling party.
But the primary plot of the movie centers on dogs, and dogs are the real protagonists. A pack of dogs, each with an alpha dog name (Rex, Boss, Chief etc), if not an alpha dog personality, roam the isle. While officially, they have no leader, Rex (Edward Norton) pretty much takes charge. Four of these five dogs were pets, and thus grew up in luxury, but the fifth, Chief (Bryan Cranston), was a stray, which often leads to him having a different perspective on things than the others, and consequently feeling like an outcast. The pack finds Atari, and decides to lead him to Spots, but Chief, who’s never been very good with humans, needs more time to take to the boy and get invested in their mission.
When I see this as Chief’s story, with a touching arc of courage, growth and self-esteem, this is a really good movie. Bryan Cranston brings gruffness, grit and experience to his performance, but layers it with heart and vulnerability. He makes us love his character without ever being particularly likable. His relationships with Atari, the pack and others grow organically, and even when we aren’t very invested in the other character, we care about the relationship because we care about Chief. His performance makes the movie for me.
Unfortunately, that’s just one of two storylines in this movie. The other follows events back on the mainland, showing us the politics around an intense dogs vs cats divide, shining a light on the corruption and propaganda involved, which, wouldn’t you know it, is an allegory. (The pro-dog opposition party is called the Science Party. Subtle.) Oddly enough, you don’t need to be a dog-lover to appreciate the plot with the dogs, but whenever the movie cuts back to the subplot about people fighting over whether dogs are good, especially with Tracy’s movement, unless you’re a dog-lover, there’s nothing interesting to be gained from it. And if you’re not a dog lover, but are a cat lover, the experience might be even less engaging.
But story isn’t everything, and for directors like Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright and in this case, Wes Anderson, the storytelling choices often form the core of the appeal of their films, much more so than the stories they tell. Anderson’s work in Isle of Dogs has already received a lot of acclaim and controversy, and while, not knowing Japanese, I can’t reasonable pick a side in the appropriation debate as it applies to this film, I can back the acclaim. Everything you expect from an Anderson film is here, from the symmetrical frames to the meticulous pace. And while the emotional investment rises and falls, at least it’s always funny.
Ultimately, I do recommend Isle of Dogs, it’s a good film. But the recommendation can’t help but be weaker for those who don’t hear the title and immediately think “yes! I do love dogs!” Wes Anderson completionists will be satisfied, but everyone else, consider this a “go if you have time on your hands” kind of recommendation, and not the “go! go! go!” kind.