‘Isle of Dogs’ displays Anderson’s alluring but self-absorbed style

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 5/15/18 2:10am

Ever since filmmaker and critic François Truffaut published his 1954 essay “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema,” auteur theory has played a prominent role in both film theory and film criticism. Put simply, Truffaut and his contemporaries contended that directors were the true authors of their films. I remain wary of auteur theory because of its pernicious tendency to devalue the accomplishments of the many artists who collaborate with a director during the making of a film. Yet Wes Anderson seems to exist for the sole sake of being an exception.

Few filmmakers craft films that feel so thoroughly like the product of a singular vision. His style is so unique that anyone familiar with his work can identify a Wes Anderson shot half a mile away. It isn’t even that difficult to describe the specific techniques that give such shots their distinctive look: knolling, symmetrical frames and the use of flat space all contribute to this carefully controlled aesthetic. Precisely because his obsessive dedication to this aesthetic is writ large across all of his films, Anderson is one of the few auteurs about which I feel it is acceptable to ask, “What is he obsessing over?”

The problem I have long had with his lesser outings is that his style often seems to exist purely for its own sake. He clearly wants you to notice how much time he’s spent composing every aspect of every frame in every film. But sometimes that becomes overwhelming. No matter how much you enjoy his characters or the dilemmas in which they find themselves, everything about the film feels detached and distanced, as if seen through a display window.

Such is the case with Anderson’s latest offering, “Isle of Dogs.” It tells the story of a futuristic Japan wherein an evil government conspiracy has quarantined all dogs on Trash Island. When Atari Kobayashi, ward to the villainous mayor of Megasaki City, arrives on the island in search of his dog, Spots, five eccentric canines agree to join his quest.

Of course, Anderson’s work is never really about the plot. “Isle of Dogs” has enough flashbacks, interludes and chapter titles to make the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan dizzy, but these narrative flourishes are misleading. The flashbacks don’t really exist to provide backstory or flesh out character — they exist to give the narrative the same meticulously constructed sense that can be found in every other aspect of the film. Just like Anderson’s visual designs, though, this can all feel a little empty. Ultimately, one has to search elsewhere in the film for something of greater substance.

During this search, one might notice that “Isle of Dogs” is, like so many of Anderson’s films, permeated by a sense of melancholy. In part, this is derived — as it should be — from the characters, their personalities and their problems. While the film is intended to be a comedy, the protagonists are steeped in a surprising amount of loss and pain, and Anderson is never afraid to embrace the accompanying ambiguity and lack of closure.

That said, this atmosphere of ennui just as often seems to be motivated less by character and story and more by Anderson’s personal predilections. The ennui feels less like a grounded emotion and more like a seasoning or flavor tossed into the stewpot along with flashbacks and symmetrical frames. Watching any Anderson film, particularly “Isle of Dogs,” is the process of finding something more substantive to latch onto, only to constantly be redirected back to the director’s superficial aesthetic obsessions. The result is a film that feels oddly hollow. One senses it has so much more to offer, yet the film can never quite get past Anderson’s many preoccupations. This is made all the worse because the stop motion animation used in “Isle of Dogs” grants him a level of precise control that is nigh impossible to achieve with live action.

I’m not implying that Wes Anderson is a shoddy filmmaker. Sometimes, often seemingly by accident, his unique style truly does manage to reveal something almost profound, as was the case with “Rushmore.” And sometimes he’s at his best when he embraces his own frivolous and depthless impulses, as in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” But “Isle of Dogs,” as entertaining as it can be in the theater, falls on neither end of the spectrum and thus achieves next to nothing. It’s just another Wes Anderson film. And when you know exactly what is in “another Wes Anderson film” without having seen it, you know how little it has to offer.

It’s worth noting that some have accused the film of appropriating Japanese culture. While I can’t for the life of me understand why Anderson felt the need to set this story in Japan, I think BuzzFeed’s Alison Willmore hit the nail on the head when she declared that the film has more to do with the “insides of Anderson’s brain than it does [with] any actual place.” Anderson uses Japan as an aesthetic. While that is deeply problematic in its own right, it’s also not shocking — Anderson’s films are always about the insides of his brain. Sometimes that brain can be delightful, sometimes it can be insightful, but often times, as is the case with “Isle of Dogs,” it seems like it’s on autopilot, generating the same fluff over and over again.