Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Koyu Rankin, Frances McDormand, Liev Schreiber, Akira Ito
What must it feel like to be an Indian critic watching a stop-motion animated movie created by an American director about Japanese underdog dogs who speak English in a dystopian Japanese city replete with angry American displacement politics, historical ethnic cleansing metaphors and East-Asian pop culture references? To this question, my answer is simple: I feel like a dog. I follow things on screen because they make me irrationally happy. I chase what they throw at me. They amaze me when I least expect it, and oscillate between educating me and being my best friend. I look up at them, adoringly, from a vantage point that makes me feel like a moviegoer in the front row of a cinema hall. They entertain me even when they don’t. Wes Anderson’s beautifully disparate story speaks in a language I don’t need to understand.
Translation is a personal emotion here, as is evident from the lack of subtitles accompanying its world’s Japanese-speaking humans. We are only meant to interpret their actions in the same way our canine counterparts tend to interpret ours. Or, on a gloomier level, misinterpret them the way powerful administrations tend to while brainwashing citizens about ‘different breeds’ of people. If you think about it, the words coming out of human mouths may fall like rhythmic drumbeats on a dog’s ears – incidentally, also the instrumental core of Alexandre Desplat’s oriental score. For some, this could be rousing samurai music – one that demands for a band of exiled domesticated mutts to rise, unite and bring down an authoritarian government of devious cat lovers. And to others, this might just come across as an eclectically playful soundtrack – one that aids the journey of a 12-year-old orphan and his naïve search for his banished pet.
Either way, Isle of Dogs makes the kind of noise we want to hear, irrespective of how we process it. It is both profoundly detailed and intimately collared. It is both an artistic scribble and an aesthetic cry of war. I mean – it’s about dogs. Talking dogs. Talking dogs with humane eyes that can be both sad and funny when they cry. What’s not to love?
As someone seemingly unconnected to the film’s crossbred cultural cacophony, I empathize with the outsiders in it. The dog-flu infected pets exiled to Trash Island (given the Japanese obsession with cleanliness, there could have been no better symbol of persecution) in lieu of a ‘canine saturation crisis’; the brave orphan ward who crashes his plane onto the island in search of his ex-protector named Spots; the Chief – a grizzly black stray amidst banished purebreds who swears by native heritage (“I bite”) over obedience; a pack of aboriginal dogs whose reputations make for gossip fodder; a noble opposition-party scientist who wants to cure the dogs; an American foreign-exchange student who believes in fearless activist journalism; the growing equation between the child and the Chief (How To Train Your Dragon-Dog?). The narrative is deliberately smug; lost-brother, abrupt flashbacks and outcast-in-the-wild clichés dot its beats, as if willing us to notice how humankind enforces its intellectual limitations even upon its most loyal companions.
Each frame is loaded with information – even the showboating ones. For example, imagine the symbolism of a shot that presents a couple of arguing dogs as black silhouettes juxtaposed against a mountain of “multi-coloured” trash. Imagine that of the only two procedures shown in grave detail – a chef intricately preparing sushi on a chopping table, and a surgeon methodically slicing across bodies during a kidney transplant operation. Hence, it isn’t too unusual that for a filmmaker with such visual flair, it’s the thoughts, the broader analogies – his screenplays – that also fetch him several award nominations. I’m just not sure they’re written on actual paper. Perhaps on a bunch of old fliers advertising Akira Kurosawa’s “axial cut” workshops?
Unlike evocative Pixar productions, Anderson often thrives on mechanizing the concept of life. The voices are usually monotonous, the movements a caricature of motion. The absence of fluidity – his shooting techniques amplify this effect – in most scenes help establish a landscape of behavioral awkwardness that automatically weaponizes the “outcast”. Normally it’s just the protagonist that physically symbolizes a sense of alienation (say, an Edward Scissorhands); here, it’s the entire canvas.
He thrives on disorienting us with these miniaturist illusions of civilization – his distinctive chapter-wise style and eccentric voice-overs make sure we know that we are merely watching pages from a storybook being flipped really fast. It counts on us knowing that his is an artificial world whose characters seem to be reacting despite the craft and not because of it. In a way, the deadpan faces, untimely silences and clinical symmetry of motion are results – and depictions – of figures that are reluctant to believe in the very concept of animation.
This replicates a feeling of magic realism that might be inherently entrenched within the minds of the film’s occupants. What looks funny to us is certainly not as funny to them. Even his live-action movies – especially Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel – are designed to emulate this stilted, sociopathic vibe, almost as if any of their frames might turn over to reveal Anderson maniacally pulling the strings atop a giant dollhouse. Much like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs is surprisingly affecting in this quest for expression. I found myself tearing up at more than just the prospect of abandoned dogs, weak dogs, angry dogs and intelligent dogs. I found myself oddly moved by the tragicomedy of a tribal dog passionately dissecting accusations of cannibalism. I found myself laughing at the idea of Bill Murray voicing a withered dog in Japan, and his fleeting reaction to Scarlett Johansson’s isolated existence. And at Tilda Swinton’s single-word cameo as an ‘Oracle’ pug whose talents stem from her TV news addiction.
Of course it all came together. Irrespective of mood, genre, medium, species – it had to. Because the invisible thread of kinship connecting a child to a dog is the same one that connects this filmmaker’s vision to our perception of controlled imagery. It is, in essence, a language private and beyond reason. Clearly, for Wes Anderson, all the world’s a postman, and its men and women merely dogs.