Isle of Dogs (PG-13)

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I have just checked. At the moment, there are only two movies streaming in the “Children & Family” section of Netflix which I would allow my daughters, ages 6 and 8, to watch. I love children, and happily admit myself to be one of those naïve romantics who does not really believe them capable of sin until the age of 10 or so, but I positively loathe most things which are themed for children. Few things offend my taste more than the children’s menu at an otherwise decent restaurant. On occasion, I forget to tell a waiter that my children should be served their drinks in honest-to-God glasses, as human beings tend to drink from, and they instead bring them lemonade in plastic cups festooned with cartoons. The children’s menu is similarly Kafkaesque. While the adults are given real food to eat, children are offered grilled cheese or spaghetti, usually served with crayons and a coloring book for an appetizer. I do not respond much better to children being treated this way in restaurants than I would if I went to dinner with an African-American friend and saw him being handed a special menu which only offered fried chicken, grits, and watermelon.

At the same time, it is not particularly surprising that we serve children cartoon food. Much of the clothing made for children is similarly garish. I cannot count how many times I have passed over purchasing an otherwise dignified blouse, blazer, or dress for my girls simply because some madman decided to put a massive applique of a garish rainbow colored horse on an otherwise dignified article of clothing. The entertainments typically commended to children complete a trifecta of inelegant kitsch. When children are not being dressed in cartoons, or being served food on cartoon plates, they are watching cartoons so they can quote cartoons and pretend to be cartoons. In America, children are treated as second class citizens. We are hesitant to give children really good things, slow to ask them to enjoy really good things, and so they develop mediocre tastes while yet quite young. The wizards at Marvel and DC have made billions banking on people being easy to please, provided the sound is turned up, the colors are bright, and the catsuits made of latex. Such audiences come from somewhere… a cartoon somewhere. Parents would do well to govern their children’s tastes by asking of films and books, “Is this going to make my son more likely or less likely to become the kind of person who gets bored after five minutes at the Louvre and spend the rest of his time walking around looking at his phone?” For most children’s movies, the answer to this question is, “More likely. Obviously.”

Isle of Dogs was always going to fail or succeed in my eyes as a children’s movie, then. My children have seen The Fantastic Mr. Fox north of twenty times, it is their all-time favorite, and when they heard the same fellow who made that film was doing another animal picture, their excitement was immediate and deep. They have seen Mr. Fox so many times because I myself am willing to watch it over and over again, for the best children’s movies do not cravenly cater to children’s interests, but lift children up to maturity. A children’s movie should make enough sense on its own to a child, without copious explanation from adults, but with subsequent viewings children should begin to ask questions about the plot and inquire about the meaning of this or that line of dialog. If a children’s movie is not perfectly lucid on a first viewing, this is nothing, because the best movies for adults also require many returns. Six or seven viewings in, I am still putting together the last pieces of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The first viewing merely whetted my appetite.

Christian parents are ga-ga for gospel themes in movies, though I have never seen the appeal. The kind of filmmakers who go in for big morals are typically all thumbs when it comes to crafting subtle, dignified characters and mood. If a children’s film features a zany, coked-out chicken named MC Fricassee who raps 2 Live Crew songs, but amends the lyrics to teach neat lessons about sharing, 9 out of 10 baptized adults will be impressed enough to buy the DVD. But it is enough for a children’s movie to not have wacky, irritating characters who say wacky, irritating things and sing wacky, irritating songs, and this critical scythe is broad and powerful enough to behead 96% of all movies marketed to children. The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a movie without easy lessons, though around the twelfth viewing I explained to Beatrice and Camilla that Mr. Fox was a bit of gourmand who had to learn to be content with more mundane foods, a lesson I am also in need of learning. Morals and gospel-themes tend to lull parents into a false state of security. Children immediately forget moral lessons, but annoying catch-phrases and stupid tunes and slapstick wildness will last for hours, if not weeks.

Wes Anderson’s films are usually amoral, which, as a Christian, is probably why I like them so much. For several years now, I have revisited the major works of Anderson’s oeuvre every December, saving The Grand Budapest Hotel for New Year’s Day— an auspicious day, well suited for a eulogy for Western civilization. I always drink something very good while watching it and shed a few tears for Gustave in the end. Nonetheless, Anderson’s greatest theme is adultery, illicit romance which requires tricks and schemes and fear of getting caught. Adultery turns adults into children, which is why Anderson likes it so much. When adultery is not on the line, some other mild form of perversion suffices: Max Fischer falls in love with an older woman, Richie Tenenbaum falls in love with his (adopted) sister, Gustave prefers women with one foot in the grave, Steve Zissou has the hots for a pregnant lady. Wes Anderson is very cool, very talented, but he has never even tried to come off as a good person.

At the same time, Wes Anderson has a lot of personality and, as Jules says in Pulp Fiction, personality goes a long way. Like Charles Schulz, Anderson treats adults like children and children like adults, and the two are generally meeting somewhere in the hazy middle. Anderson remembers with great clarity the rules which children believe govern the world, and sometimes he proves them right. Anderson’s films are nonetheless carnal-minded, earthly affairs wherein the characters are nearly devoid of any religious sensibility at all. The only god to which Anderson pays any cult is the Past, but this single virtue, nostalgia, counts as real wisdom in our world, which is at war with anything more than twelve minutes old. On this point, Isle of Dogs may seem like something of a departure for Wes Anderson, as it is his first film to be set in the future.

In the last several months, I have placed the reigns of FilmFisher into the very competent hands of Timothy Lawrence, and while there are a number of reasons for this, the most significant is that I have found writing reviews of new films increasingly difficult. Years ago, I came out of the theater with many things to say. Today, I find it takes me weeks, if not months, and many viewings to form my thoughts. I could easily and happily write an essay about Gattaca or Lost in Translation, but I have seen those films several dozen times each and been in conversation with myself about them for years. Most films simply do not do much for me after a single viewing, and I find it is only the rarest piece of work which lingers in my heart for more than an hour or two. I quickly forget everything. This is not exactly a fair standard to set, though I should say that, in the last year, I have only seen three films with sufficient spirit to survive the sluggish flesh of failing memory, Blade Runner 2049, Phantom Thread, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

Three days later, Isle of Dogs is not without a lingering sweetness. Alas, the film would have enjoyed doubled powers had it been given a summer release, for no sci-fi adventure story is suited to the cold, gusty weather of March or April. Dogs’ nearest Anderson analog is Moonrise Kingdom, for when I recall either film, I see silhouetted characters on a side-scrolling trek through uncertain terrain. Both the Moonrise couple and the Dogs posse are variously hunted by friend and foe, antagonists become accomplices, most adults don’t get it, and twelve year-olds fall in love. Anderson has little interest in capturing what youth is like (for that, you need Herman Hesse), but an uncanny ability to recall what youths wish life was like. The actual adventures of youth are typically no more grand than walking three blocks further from home than you are allowed, or needing a butterfly stitch, or stealing your bike back, or hearing that your friend ate French fried frogs legs, but Anderson is a good impressionist who recalls nothing with objective clarity, but only the sensations and the high-vaulted metaphors necessary to communicate those feelings.

In Isle of Dogs, Atari’s stolen plane and odyssey across Trash Island plays up the barely-adolescent hope that something will go wrong, because everything will be more interesting if it does. Every time the fire alarm went off during elementary school, I hoped to see smoke during the evacuation to the parking lot, just because something terribly important would be happening if so. When the alarm proved only a drill, the world became terrifyingly dull for hours afterward. What young boy doesn’t wish all dogs were banished just so he could righteously go get his own dog back? What boy is not secretly pleased by the idea that his mother is not his actual mother, just because it might mean his best friend is his brother? The crisis of Isle of Dogs is a gloriously convenient one.

As with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson has once again forgone popular music in crafting atmosphere. Between Rushmore and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, the soundtrack to a Wes Anderson film was an invariably well-crafted vintage mixtape of lesser known tracks from major 60s groups (“The Way I Feel Inside,” by The Zombies), and remarkable songs from bands and singers you had never heard of, like Peter Sarstedt’s “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?” Anderson’s use of rock and roll formerly inspired the broad, but not-particularly deep rebel spirit of characters like Max Fischer, Royal Tenenbaum, and Steve Zissou, though it’s worth noting that nearly ten years have passed since Mick Jagger was heard in a Wes Anderson picture. There is still something of Royal’s, “I’m not talking about dance lessons. I’m talking about putting a brick through the other guy’s windshield. I’m talking about taking it out and chopping it up” in Isle of Dogs, but not much. Anderson’s anti-authoritarian streak began to die in The Grand Budapest Hotel, but with Isle of Dogs, he has finally written heroes who are basically commendable, front to back. The lovable scoundrel has simply become lovable.

That said, Isle of Dogs does not stray far from the standard Anderson formulas and habits, which means the critical response to the film has predictably run the gamut of “brilliant” to “lame hipster ironic cool distance no heart but still too precious what about #MeToo?” Obviously, I side with the former, and use Anderson’s films as places safe from safe places, refuges from the overtaxing and self-important modern Charybdis which sucks everything into an endless whirlpool of political rhetoric. For Anderson, Columbine never happened, but neither did grunge music, social media or cell phones. Isle of Dogs is set in the near-future, but all of Anderson’s films are actually situated in a parallel universe wherein all the distasteful and aesthetically unpleasing things of the world have been happily edited. Tracy Walker falls in love with Atari while watching his story unfold on TV news, like it was still 1981. I have not learned of anything important while watching TV in nearly twenty years. As with the rest of Anderson’s work, Isle of Dogs is blissfully, intentionally ignorant of the zeitgeist. As something of a luddite, it’s exactly the kind of movie I want my children to get lost in.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books, collects records and jogs to work. He and his wife have two children, both of whom have seven names. He tweets at @joshgibbs and blogs for the CiRCE Institute.

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