Isle of Dogs

Beginning with Rushmore (1998), the films of Wes Anderson have seemed to sit outside of time, combining elements of past and present culture to create environments that belong entirely to themselves. This started to change somewhat with Moonrise Kingdom (2012), which situated the action in the middle 1960s, but its vision of the past was too fanciful for the film to be regarded as a straight period piece. History played a more prominent role in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), as the movie commented obliquely on eastern European politics throughout the 20th century as well as the life and work of famed author Stefan Zweig. Here too Anderson’s robust imagination overwhelmed any factual details—in one typical development, Anderson conflated World Wars I and II into a single conflict. Yet one could sense an engagement with the real world coming into focus, particularly in the film’s haunting final shot, which considered the oppressive legacy of Soviet Communism and its deleterious impact on people’s imaginations.

I believe that Anderson’s latest feature, the stop-motion animation Isle of Dogs, marks the first time that the writer-director has attempted to engage with the present zeitgeist. The film is still fantastical in its premise and design—it takes place 20 years in the future, and the heroes are a band of talking dogs—yet I found it unexpectedly resonant with regards to contemporary society. The central concerns of Isle of Dogs speak to a couple of hot-button issues: the rise of authoritarian regimes and the plight of refugees. I don’t know if Anderson intended for the film to be topical; movies, of course, take years to make, and the world in which filmmakers begin their projects isn’t the same as the one in which they release their finished products. Regardless, Isle of Dogs feels timely in a way no other Anderson film has.

The film’s story kicks into gear when the authoritarian mayor of the fictional Japanese city Megasaki declares dogs to be a threat to public health due to an outbreak of diseases called dog flu and snout fever. He announces a plan to banish all of the city’s dogs to an abandoned island now used as a garbage dump. Despite the protests of a scientist who believes he can create cures for the canine diseases, Mayor Kobayashi wins popular support for his plan, and the dogs of Megasaki are rounded up and sent to Trash Island. Much of the film takes place on the island, which Anderson and his animators realize in marvelous detail. (The director has cited the films of Akira Kurosawa as an influence on Isle of Dogs, and Trash Island recalls the settings of Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den, which was filmed on a garbage dump outside Tokyo.) The story centers on a group of former pets reduced to eating garbage and fighting other packs of dogs for survival—it may be a bleak premise, but Anderson infuses it with humor, employing his trademark comic patter to enliven the dire situation.

Isle of Dogs

One might read the dogs as a metaphor for displaced people all over the world, with the harshness of Trash Island representing the inhuman conditions that refugees are forced to withstand. Having lost hope of ever being sent home, the dogs start to lose sense of their identities. In a poignant early scene, a former stray who joins the main characters encourages the other dogs to remember their names and former lives, effectively calling on them to preserve their sense of self in spite of their dehumanizing (well, de-dog-izing) surroundings. A ray of hope appears when a human boy sneaks onto the island on a mission to recover his beloved pet. His arrival encourages the dogs, giving them hope that some people still care about what’s happening to them. The heroes decide to help the boy find his dog, and their adventure across the island accounts for much of the remainder of the story.

Back in Megasaki, Mayor Kobayashi imprisons the idealistic scientist who sought to oppose the dogs’ banishment and later has the scientist killed. This a troubling reminder of the persecution of political dissidents in authoritarian regimes, and it serves as Isle of Dogs’s most frightening development. Yet Anderson finds hope in this scenario, presenting a group of activist high school students (led, improbably, by an American exchange student) who seek to expose the mayor’s evil machinations and rescue the banished dogs. Because the movie is a fantasy, the students succeed in their efforts and topple the mayor’s regime. This happy ending doesn’t cheapen the themes of persecution and displacement—Anderson renders the injustice of Trash Island so vividly that it lingers in the memory; moreover, his message of viewing the displaced with compassion is so winning that one accepts the optimistic conclusion.