Wes Anderson just might make an animal lover of me
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
For most of his career, I have had a begrudging respect for the fastidious aesthetic of Wes Anderson. There is an undeniable craft on display in every single frame he composes that is meticulous and filled with obvious wit. His films live and breathe in the minute, carefully orchestrated details of the somewhat hermetically sealed worlds he creates for his characters.
His characters are archly sketched types, too smart by a noticeable degree, too easily bothered by the mundane world around them. It almost always felt like they exerted a force of will or personality to alter their realities. That was the effect of Wes-world. That sense came, first and foremost, from the writer-director, as if the characters were merely a collection of variations of his own persona, and it was Anderson sharing his dreamscape with us.
So where does that leave his animated stop-motion works—“Fantastic Mr. Fox” and now, “Isle of Dogs”? I would argue that these films, which put the artifice at the forefront, offer a truer expression of the human dimension, because we know and recognize that these characters aren’t simply human markers or placeholders (better yet, avatars). They share the screen and the narratives with humans who tend to operate on a baser, but sadly familiar, level. We understand that the animals represent ideals and principles that the humans in these stories fail to achieve, but the animals have faults and failings, primal urges that are utterly familiar to us. They are not abstractions, as I sometimes feel Anderson allows his live-action human characters
Fortunately, in Anderson’s live-action features, his actors usually help to bridge the gap, investing these “figures” with warmth and charisma from our associations with them, but that’s not the same thing as the characters having (or earning) said characteristics on their own. Bill Murray seems to perpetually be playing “Bill Murray” in Anderson projects and we’re more than content to go along for the ride, but we know he’s never going to cut loose and give us more of his prismatic charm because that would unsettle the ironically detached Anderson vibe.
But in “Isle of Dogs,” I found a real sense of kinship with Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), a rascally stray relegated to the trash heap after a severe case of dog flu overtakes their population and threatens the routine stability of human life. In Chief, we get that expected Cranston intensity, the deep rumbling growl that’s perpetually on the verge of a sharp biting attack because Chief is wounded and unfamiliar with human contact. In theory, he might want to be Man’s best friend, but life hasn’t given him a reason to trust that Man’s worth his loyalty.
His cohorts—Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum)—had pleasant memories of human companionship and the voice work of these performers seems to lovingly mimic the rhyme and rhythms of their former masters. It comes as no surprise when Atari (Koyu Rankin) steals a plane and crash lands on the isle, in search of his exiled dog, that Rex is able to convince the others in the pack to help the young boy. Chief supports the pack, but he always starts off pulling as the others push forward.
The magic of “Isle of Dogs” is in full-bloom in these interactions. Anderson presents the primal animal pack as a project management team of sorts. We see the unity of purpose, but also understand that it is not always cohesive from the onset. Chief chafes under the quickly proclaimed leadership of Rex. It would be easy to see the pack as a collection of alpha dogs—that is how Chief envisions them—but they aren’t. There is an instinctual democratic functioning that bubbles up in their interactions that feels organic. And the interplay between Chief and Rex never results in the antagonistic conflict we might assume. Anderson shows us how each of these willful characters bends without breaking.
To my mind, as someone who has never fully embraced the forced subservience in human and animal relationships, what emerges in “Isle of Dogs” (and to a greater extent in “Fantastic Mr. Fox”) is a natural sense of collective engagement. Earned respect and cooperation should trump the conventionality of ownership. I know I sound like I’m taking this all far too seriously, but pets and zoos are little more than another form of slavery, rooted in the idea that animals exist to cater to our needs. We talk about animal rights, but Anderson offers us a lesson in how we might truly embrace inclusion amongst all members of the animal kingdom.