REVIEW: ‘Isle of Dogs,’ elements of style

Image: Fox Searchlight


It’s easy to read a kind of progression into each new Wes Anderson movie. The last two have seen Anderson retreat even further from a recognizable reality and deeper into his own obsessively appointed imagination while, for the first time, invoking something bigger than the emotional immaturity of privileged men.


The amorphousness of Grand Budapest Hotel’s totalitarian threat allowed it to remain appropriately abstract—a place-setting detail that simultaneously conjured the real and the fantastic. In Isle of Dogs, Anderson amplifies the politicism and topicality. The movie is unmistakably about environmental decay, anti-immigrant hostility, and runaway nationalism.


But Anderson’s attempt at thematic relevance never rises above the superficial—those elements are absorbed into his regular arsenal of affectations. With the tyrannical Major Kobayashi, who sets things into motion when he orders that every dog in Japan be exiled, Anderson has crafted an undeniably Trumpian villain. The entire thesis, though, is that scapegoating the less fortunate is bad.


That unwillingness to engage with the larger world has been the filmmaker’s thematic motivator from the beginning; but at this point in his career, the artificiality is beginning to wear so severely that, in retrospect, one begins to reconsider his entire output. Has it all been this hollow?


I’m not so sure. Anderson’s best work interrogates the superficiality that his detractors seize upon. The aesthetic tics serve the characters: Bottle Rocket’s Dignan and Rushmore’s Max Fischer are poseurs. The Tenenbaums and Whitman brothers are liars. Anderson’s fussy detachment reinforces their obsessive interior absence.


As Anderson has matured, his attention to interiority has shifted outward so that his plots have become as busy as his movies’ other formal qualities. The early stuff’s prim shagginess—Rushmore, for example, feels much longer than its 90 minutes—has been replaced by overclocked incident. Isle of Dogs never stops moving, but it’s his most lifeless movie yet.


There’s some charming stuff along the way: the whirring of pre-digital television studios, some clever mixed-media animation, a cross-sectioned ride through an elaborate trash incinerator. Those pleasures, though, are entirely aesthetic. Nothing in Isle of Dogs comes close to the emotional resonance of even The Darjeeling Limited.


So much for progress. If Isle of Dogs doesn’t exactly devalue Anderson’s best work, its hermetic momentum betrays a once-promising filmmaker’s growing struggle with vacancy. Hopefully he’ll get around to tackling that one day.


Isle of Dogs. Written and directed by Wes Anderson. Starring Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, and Bill Murray. Opens in Kansas City April 6, 2018.

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