A particular kind of darkness lurks in Wes Anderson’s Technicolor dreamscapes.
In “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Willem Dafoe throws Jeff Goldblum’s cat out the window. Goldblum probably had it coming, because in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” released a decade earlier, he smacks a three-legged dog with a newspaper. Neither scene compares to “Moonrise Kingdom,” though, in which a stray arrow shot by a Khaki Scout tragically kills the troop mascot, a wirehair fox terrier named Snoopy.
Pets are so often the victims of the writer-director’s quirky storytelling that it led the New Yorker to publish a piece in 2012 titled, “Does Wes Anderson Hate Dogs?” His past work certainly made it appear so, but his new stop-motion film, “Isle of Dogs,” serves as a passionate rebuttal. Say the title quickly and you’ll hear it: Isle of dogs. I love dogs.
Guys, Wes Anderson loves dogs.
The film — co-written by Roman Coppola, Kunichi Nomura and Jason Schwartzman — is set in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki, where “brains have been washed, wheels have been greased, fear has been mongered.” The corrupt, cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (Nomura) has exiled canine pets, all of whom mysteriously contracted dog flu, to a nearby garbage dump called Trash Island. Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), the mayor’s distant nephew, proceeds to fly a rickety airplane across the river in search of his beloved dog and sworn protector, Spots (Liev Schreiber), and encounters a scraggly crew right away: Chief (Bryan Cranston), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Rex (Edward Norton) and Duke (Goldblum).
The indifference with which Anderson seemed to treat animals in the past fits with his signature style of quick plot progression and sudden movements. There is no time to dwell on tragedy in these worlds, much less that related to a pet, because the canine sidekicks often exist to serve elements of their human owners deemed more integral to the story.
After Snoopy dies in “Moonrise Kingdom,” for instance, the young runaways deliver a rather bland eulogy. Suzy (Kara Hayward) asks Sam (Jared Gilman) if Snoopy was a good dog, and Sam replies: “Who’s to say? But he didn’t deserve to die.” Then he pulls the arrow out, and that’s that. The unsentimental reaction reveals their youthful inability to confront the death of an innocent, positioning the dog as a thematic device more than anything else.
“Isle of Dogs” adopts a different approach. Chief is arguably the film’s protagonist, and the dogs control much of the story — and not just because their barks are heard in English, while the human characters speak in their native (and often untranslated) tongues. It’s the initially reluctant Chief and his crew who lead the mission by guiding Atari around Trash Island. Whereas the family beagle Buckley is passively killed in “The Royal Tenenbaums” when a high Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) drives his car into the house, Chief and Spots speak up for themselves and fight death valiantly.
An ear does get bitten off in “Isle of Dogs,” but the overall movie leans toward embracing the creatures. Anderson could be atoning for his past misdeeds, or maybe being nice just serves the story better. While throwing a helpless cat out the window depicted the awfulness of Dafoe’s character in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Anderson allows that symbolism to encompass the entire movie this time around, presenting us with a lesson about the how harmful fear of the “other” can be. The good guys’ position relies on treating the dogs kindly and as equals — they are never secondary to humans as Snoopy and Buckley were.
And what a fun world this creates. Chief and the others never fail to amuse while delivering absurd dialogue in a deadpan tone, and we get to meet a number of their fellow pups as well: Oracle (Tilda Swinton), a pug who watches TV to “predict” the future; Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), a former show dog; and Peppermint (Hayward), Spots’s love interest. Anjelica Huston is credited as having voiced a mute poodle, because that is how Wes Anderson movies work. While cats get the short end of the stick as mascots of the corrupt Kobayashi regime, at least they aren’t murdered on screen like Snoopy or the cats in “The Shape of Water” and “Stranger Things.” Baby steps.
Early in the movie, Mayor Kobayashi’s competitor asks: “Whatever happened to man’s best friend?” We finally have a happy answer.