It might be the devil, or it might be the Lord,
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody….

Thus singeth Bob Dylan. And thus showeth director Wes Anderson in his latest film Isle of Dogs. 

Any dog lover knows the particular and purposeful joy that dogs seem to take in serving their masters. So it’s easy to feel the burden of the protagonists in this extravagantly animated film. Yes, the main characters here are canines who, suffering from an epidemic of Dog Flu, have been deported from the fictional Japanese City of Megasaki to the living hellscape of Trash Island, sometime in the not-so-distant future.

The particular gang of dogs at the center of our story includes Chief (Bryan Cranston), a gruff loner who reluctantly ranges about with the talkative and disgruntled Rex (Edward Norton), the rumor-spreading Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), and King (Bob Balaban). They’re a pack of self-proclaimed “indestructible alpha dogs” who spend their days searching for garbage good enough to sustain them; fighting over that limited supply with other snarling packs; and sneezing their way through one melancholy, master-less day after another.

Rex and his friends are looking for a better way of life on Trash Island.  © 2018 – Fox Searchlight

It’s hard to see how they stand a chance of escaping; how they’ll quell the mass hysteria of the Japanese people who, brainwashed by anti-dog propaganda, have turned against them; how they’ll overcome the campaign against them led by Mayor Kobayashi, a fearmongering tyrant; or how they’ll expose the conspiracies that have silenced scientists and suppressed the efforts of dog-loving truth-tellers back home.

But where there’s longing there’s hope: Rex’s determination to find a better life keeps the eyes of his pack brothers open for opportunities. They’re sick of their trash-heavy diet — I’m sure that you, browsing your streaming video options, can relate — and eager to find something better than this half-life.

This stretch of Trash Island coastline looks suspiciously like a post-apocalyptic version of that beach in Moonrise Kingdom.  © 2018 – Fox Searchlight

Enter Atari, a young Japanese orphan. Yes, this is a Wes Anderson movie, after all. So it’s going to be about a child (or a man-child) striving to make a life in the shadow of an overbearing parent or authority figure. Just as the children in Moonrise Kingdom fled from their irresponsible parents in search of love, Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin) has run from the seemingly heartless uncle who adopted him — Mayor Kobayashi, of course. He’s stolen a plane in order to search for his one true friend and confidant: his deported dog, Spots.

And, sure enough, he’s crashed on Trash Island right in front of Rex’s pack.

A cloud of smoke rises from the site of Atari’s plane crash, and the dogs decide to investigate.   © 2018 – Fox Searchlight

Yearning for a master, Rex and company are immediately drawn to Atari and inclined to help him search.

But Chief stays at the edges of the scene, grumbling, refusing to risk spoiling his illusion of self-sufficiency by making himself obedient to any master. He makes his philosophy clear in three words: “I don’t sit.

This would seem like a clear, straightforward, honorable theme, one sturdy enough to serve as the heart of a good story. But Isle of Dogs — a story that Anderson imagined with help from Roman Coppola, Jason Schwarzman, and Japanese actor and writer Kunichi Nomura — is his most complex and ambitious narrative.

The drama of the search for Spots is set in a strangely complicated context, a culture that seems drawn more from popular Japanese movies than from Japan itself. It’s a Japan of magical realism, as fanciful — perhaps more so — than the completely imaginary Republic of Zubrowka in The Grand Budapest Hotel. There’s a cruel overlord, a brainwashed people, an endangered company of truth-seeking scientists, and an uprising of conscientious children. You might sense some obvious overlaps with conflicts currently making headlines, like those involving egomaniacal authoritarian leaders; the deportation of innocents who have been misrepresented as threats; persecuted scholars and suppressed studies that might save lives; and passionate young idealists speaking truth to power.

But the film never seems preachy or self-consciously relevant. It’s too caught up in the complexities of its foreign context, its frequent allusions to classic cinema, and its unlikely literary mash-ups. The influence of Akira Kurosawa is obvious, but I see an even stronger influence. Anderson has gone on the record as a big fan of Richard Adams’s Watership Down, and Isle of Dogs resembles nothing more than the plot of another difficult and heartsickening Adams epic: The Plague Dogs.

When it comes to the ideal meaning of “Master,” does Atari measure up?   © 2018 – Fox Searchlight

Unfortunately, while this choice to set his futuristic fantasy in some kind of pop-culture distillation of Japan enables Anderson to weave elaborately ornate animated tapestries, pepper his screenplay with poignant haikus, and send composer Alexandre Desplat into a fever of taiko rhythms, it also finds him indulging ideas and images that are provoking cries of cultural insensitivity.

I admit, I flinched when the dogs chuckled in excitement at the sight of a billowing cloud of smoke over an explosion in this Japanese environment. And while it’s clearly meant to be amusing that Japanese characters have names drawn from Japanese pop culture — specifically from things that American audiences will recognize — the heroic dogs have inexplicably American names. (Justin Chang and Jen Yamato, in The Los Angeles Times, have described this problem more eloquently, and in greater detail.)

Why must the human hero of a Japanese revolution be an American exchange student?   © 2018 – Fox Searchlight

How does this story about Japanese tyranny, propaganda, and misinformation relate to the central storyline about dogs and masters, or about the difference between blind servitude and freewill?

Perhaps we’re to consider the fact that Mayor Kobayashi is being “mastered” by his fears and his vanity. Perhaps we’re to see the consequences of blind loyalty to a fallible master as the hound-haters of Megasaki are brainwashed into hysteria.

I’m not sure yet.

Robot dogs are coming to Trash Island to finish off our endangered pack.   © 2018 – Fox Searchlight

I suspect that, whatever the storytellers were thinking in weaving these plot threads into such an elaborate tapestry, Isle of Dogs is best interpreted as a story about the importance of willful service for the greater good. Anderson, whose stories always draw us into the tension between maverick independence and community service, wants his animals to remain gloriously untamed, but he also knows the necessity of compromise and cooperation.

Thus, the only step that the obstinate Chief can take toward fulfillment is a step toward the lonely, injured boy who has come to Trash Island, thrown a stick, and commanded him to fetch it. Only by consenting to serve someone good will Chief find purpose and relief. But he will have to reckon with his own knee-jerk reaction to trouble: his tendency to bite.

In that sense, I suppose, Isle of Dogs has something in common with the most recent movie from that other Anderson: Phantom Thread. That, too, is a story of a delusional ego who, fancying himself as independent and insulating himself against the dangers of relationship, makes himself and everyone around him miserable. Only through an inconvenient commitment — in Phantom Thread, love and marriage — can the hero escape his self-inflicted imprisonment.

And Chief isn’t the only one who needs change. As with all Anderson films, there’s a patriarchal giant who, while intolerably insensitive, might not yet have strayed beyond redemption. Mayor Kobayashi himself will have to recover a conscience or suffer the violence of a rising revolution. Only by seeking a cure for the Dog Flu, rather than merely banishing the sick, can Kobayashi help the Japanese Archipelago, which is by its very definition a scattered society, reconcile its fractured body.


I write all of this with admiration for Anderson’s narrative ambitions, awe for his aesthetic achievements (Isle of Dogs is his most intricately detailed and luminous film), and love for his boundless imagination.

Wes Anderson: The man who plays with dolls… for the greater good, of course.   © 2018 – Fox Searchlight

But I also write in a state of agitation and frustration.

Isle of Dogs, while it represents a new high in Wes Anderson’s visual pageantry, was also for me, in my first viewing, the least affecting Wes Anderson narrative. I felt that I was looking at the movie instead of feeling myself drawn in. As I tried to get my bearings in this fictional foreign context, seeking an answer for the question “Why Japan?”, I remained distracted and perplexed. While I could identify the contours of the narrative’s themes and trace the arc of Chief’s story, I never felt drawn into its characters’ personal conflicts the way I was drawn in so powerfully to the conflicts at the heart of Anderson’s previous films (most especially The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom).

But I know better than to blame Anderson or his movie. While I might suspect, at this point, that Isle of Dogs is taking on too much storytelling for its running time, and giving insufficient attention to its many characters, I must also admit that I felt somewhat detached in my first encounters with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Grand Budapest Hotel, two films that I have grown to love, films that eventually — on my second or third viewing — moved me deeply, even to tears.

I want to care about Atari’s adventures more than I do (at this point, anyway).   © 2018 – Fox Searchlight

Also, I’m not really a dog person. Perhaps my failure to feel firm tugs on my heart-leash has to do with the fact that I’m partial to different kinds of pets — cats, for example (who have very good reasons to file grievances against these storytellers).

Like Chief, I’m slow to pledge allegiance to a filmmaker. Contemporary American directors who have proven consistently trustworthy are few. But Anderson is one of those I faithfully follow around the Trash Island of the cineplex. It isn’t blind obedience that sends me fetching every stick he throws — rather, it’s the fact that every time I do, I find myself eventually rewarded with more than just a snack. Anderson doesn’t do treats — he serves full meals.

Chief isn’t comfortable with hugs… or masters.   © 2018 – Fox Searchlight

I may not be enthusiastic about this particular meal just yet, but I suspect that I will, after two or three rounds with it, catch on to the game that Anderson’s playing. He’s a good master… of his art.

And when I get a chance to see Isle of Dogs playing on a big screen again, I will be happy to sit.


This review is made possible by the Looking Closer Specialists,
whose support for this website keeps me going to the movies
while I strive to earn a living as an adjunct professor.
If you enjoyed this review, consider making a small donation to my work.