Originally published online at Screen Queens. April 4, 2018.
In many ways, The Grand Budapest Hotel is the apogee of Wes Anderson’s style: witty dialogue, pastel palette, familiar cast of characters, generous use of tracking shots, and a distinct auteurial voice preserved, so clearly and indelibly suffused throughout everything in the world that Anderson had created. It is distinctively and idiosyncratically Wes Anderson.
And it is also a film that I have a problematic relationship with. Although it is indeed beautiful and represents a full flowering of his distinct aesthetic, it has always felt a little empty to me. At the time of my first viewing, it was the only movie of his that I thought might possibly be more concerned with style over substance. The Grand Budapest Hotel is truly just a heist movie with hipster sensibilities. There is nothing morally wrong there, nor do I think the spectator is necessarily owed more (after all, is it not up to us to infuse the film with meaning?).
But what happens when you have reached the top, the zenith of a certain voice or aesthetic? Where can you go from there?
I think about my criticism of “Budapest” when watching Anderson’s latest, Isle of Dogs, another work whose style represents a clear Anderson-ness. Certainly, it is visually stunning, although very problematically appropriates elements of Japanese visual history, from painting to print culture to cinematic language and tradition.
It recalls the language of The Grand Budapest Hotel more than it does Fantastic Mr. Fox, his first and only other venture into stop motion to this date. While Fantastic Mr. Fox creates a convincing world—five or six degrees separated from our reality—populated with characters who act with the logic that seems inherent to that world, Isle of Dogs neither belongs to our world, nor a particular one of its own. It exists nebulously, on the periphery, like the canines banished within the film to “trash island,” always desiring to be elsewhere, watching over their banished home from a distance .
Part of the problem, of course, is that Isle of Dogs is so concerned with paying homage to the Japanese filmmakers and artists that have inspired Wes Anderson throughout his career, that the film does not feel like more than that. And it is a work of such ambition and scope—and one that works in the unforgiving medium of stop motion, which requires only the highest attention to detail and technical production—it is as if Anderson and co. were more concerned with this larger-than-life production rather than the story. The visual loses its punctum when aesthetics are all that one can hold onto. As the story progresses, the world begins to feel hollow, and the constant saturation of visual stimuli only seems to reinforce this.
The story seems to have been constructed almost hastily in post-production, with certain resolutions feeling like easy plot devices and some character motivations seeming untethered. As such, the climax is unearned and unconvincing, and this is partly due to the fact that many of the relationships do not seem to connect. In this way, the sheer scope of the world that Anderson creates overshadows the relationships among characters, which makes the viewer identify with them less strongly. This is a shame, since character identification is one of the hallmarks of a Wes Anderson movie—and one of the most enjoyable features of his oeuvre tends to be (for me, at least) the witty, fantastical dialogue among characters, and the joyful yet nostalgia-tinged melancholie that tends to punctuate them. Isle of Dogs’ dialogue often lags, leaving a viewer like me disappointed.
More than anything, what troubles me most about Isle of Dogs is the potential message that it leaves the viewer with by the end. The tense relationship between Chief, the “lone wolf” dog (Bryan Cranston) and the more bourgeois house dogs Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) plays homage to Japanese cinematic history, particularly samurai films in the style of Kurosawa, with Chief serving as a reference to a ronin, a samurai that had no master.
The house dogs, nostalgic for their former human masters and comfortable homes, extol the virtues of being obedient. Chief, meanwhile, is reluctant to be tamed. The film’s end, however, illustrates the dogs’ collective willingness—including Chief’s—to serve their human owners. What can we make of this? Surely, Wes Anderson must mean for this plot point to serve as a benign reference to cinematic tradition. In practice, however, it seems almost cruel, as we live in a world not only where dog abuse is rampant, but in which humans have genetically engineered dogs into apocryphal perfect pets, whose purpose is to obey and show affection.
If the world of Isle of Dogs were more unto its own like in Fantastic Mr. Fox, my concern with the film’s practical implications might be mitigated. However, Isle of Dogs seems more firmly tethered to reality, and thus I cannot shake my suspicions of irresponsibility on Anderson’s part—especially when you take into account the racialised connotations of some of the canine heroes, like Chief, whose fur is darkly coloured throughout the film, until the pilot Atari (Koyu Rankin) bathes him, and the viewer suddenly discovers that his fur is actually white beneath the dirt and grime that comes with being a stray dog. Unfortunately, Anderson makes parallels between whiteness and purity here, whether unintentional or otherwise.
Isle of Dogs is ultimately a visually stunning film and a marvel of a production that needed more attention on the story. Surely, it is distinctively Wes Anderson, and his highly idiosyncratic and innovative voice shines through in every minutiae detail in this film. But this film does not break new ground within his body of work—it is more of the same (and with problematic implications and appropriations to boot). His career has shown him to be a rare voice that is able to successfully bridge the commercialism with high artistic craft, but it may be time for him to rethink and reinvent his approach, so as to ensure that his later films are not just derivative versions of his earlier work.
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