If you’re looking for a movie to go to for the fun of it, let me share what my wife’s comment was when we came out of Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs: “It made me smile all the way through.” If you want a movie that allows us to consider some important issues in our world, Isle of Dogs fulfills that desire as well. This is one of the great examples of having a film that entertains well and at the same time goads our minds into active thought. It is very much like a cross-cultural extended parable.
Set in the near future in the Japanese city of Megasaki, there is disease spreading among the dog population. Fearing that the disease could spread to humans, Mayor Kobayashi decrees that all dogs will be deported to Trash Island, starting with his own family dog, Spots. Six months later, a small plane crashes on the island. As a small pack of dogs check this out, they discover a 12 year old boy as the pilot. Atari Kobayashi, the mayor’s nephew and ward, has come to look find his dog. The group sets off across the island to seek Spots.
It turns out the Mayor’s family has a history of animosity towards dogs and may have engineered the entire “crisis” as an excuse to finally eliminate all the dogs from Megasaki. As Atari and the dogs begin to discover the truth, it becomes a mission to bring down the government and restore the rights and lives of the doomed dogs.
The enjoyment of the film is very much like most of Anderson’s film. It is an inventive story that was developed by Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura. Part of the quirkiness of the film is that the dogs speak in English, but all the human characters speak in their native language (although the Japanese is nearly always translated to English). The voices are supplied by a long list of well-known actors including Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldbloom, Greta Gerwig, Scarlett Johansson, Liev Schreiber, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, and Ken Watanabi.
But for all the canine enjoyment the film offers, it also has a bite. In a world filled with the politics of fear, Isle of Dogs reflects the reality of life in many places. Mayor Kobayashi uses dogs as a scapegoat, and in the process promotes his own power. This is not a new strategy—it is probably nearly as old as humanity itself. (We need to keep those Neanderthals away from our good people.) Watching not only the dogs and Atari, but the developing political situation in Megasaki makes it very clear that we are seeing the kind of things that go on around the world every day. Most importantly though, we should be reflecting on the ways these dynamics are taking place within our own society.
Every time the President speaks of the rapists and drug dealers that come from Mexico, he is attempting to stoke fear. The fears do not have to be legitimate—only believed. Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia, and racial prejudice are all attempts to create fear so that someone else can gain a bit more power. When we allow those fears to rule the day, it means we will likely cede more power to those who claim we need protection. But, as we also see in the film, the truth and determination can eventually defeat the lies that are spread.
Photos Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved