Isle of Dogs, the new joint from Wes Anderson, straddles the invisible line between cloying and charming with the expert precision of … well, Wes Anderson. If you’re familiar with the man’s work, you know that no one makes mainstream movies as intricately beautiful. From The Royal Tenenbaums to Moonrise Kingdom to The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson’s films exude a child-like wonder and a meticulous obsession with beauty. This, of course, doesn’t mean that his movies are all meant to be seen by children. Is Isle of Dogs (out March 23) one of them? That is a bit more complicated.
On the surface, Isle of Dogs is one of Anderson’s simplest stories: boy loses dog, boy goes to great lengths to find dog, hijinks ensue, and then boy finds dog. The boy, 12-year-old Atari Kobayashi, crash lands on the titular island, where dogs have been sent to quarantine due to a “canine flu” of sorts (more on this in a bit). He meets up with a pack of dogs that all speak English (the movie makes a joke about translation early on, but the gist is that everyone speaks their normal language, except the dogs, whose barks are translated into English) who help him search for his dog Spots. Without spoiling much, it’s safe to say that a happy ending of sorts finds its way into the movie. Good guys win, bad guys lose, dog licks boy.
However, underneath the feel-good story of 2018 lies violence, heavy themes, and complicated power structures, the kind of which might sail over kids’ heads and even turn them off to the film as a whole. Perhaps it’s not surprising, given Anderson’s tendency to sneak in heady material into his otherwise saccharine productions, but Isle of Dogs might be the most successful Trojan horse of them all.
Within seconds of seeing Trash Island converted into a quarantine zone for the dogs of the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki, a viciously animated fight breaks out, concluding with Bryan Cranston’s Chief viscerally biting off the ear of another dog. It’s played for laughs, especially when the ear gets carried out by rats and chewed up in all its bloody glory. But it’s a stark image. That’s just one of the fights that show real consequences in the film, and seeing dogs limping, cut, and bruised – even if they are animated – will likely not sit well with children.
The real issue that makes this less of a kids movie than its outer layer would suggest is the political and historical skeleton of the film. The quarantine of the dogs borrows elements of Japanese internment in the United States, while the plan to forcefully eradicate all dogs because they don’t fit the city’s ideal for pets strongly recalls the Holocaust. While that adds a sense of urgency to the proceedings for anyone who has taken a high school history class, a child might miss it and instead be frightened by the seemingly inexplicable nature of the quarantine.
Additionally, the Megasaki government functions quite similarly to the authoritarian governments of real history. The man at the head of the city, Mayor Kobayashi — who is a “distant uncle” of Atari — wields his cult of personality and the ability to sway large crowds on single issues in order to pass his quarantine order and, later, the extermination law. While he and his right-hand man, Major Domo, serve as the clear villains of the film, the intricacies and eventual pay-off might read as comedic to kids, rather than challenging, as it might for those with a context of history.
With all that in mind, how old should a child be to get the full, intended experience that is Isle of Dogs? It appears that the MPAA got the rating correct on this: as a PG-13 movie, this is a movie aimed at those entering their teen years or older. While a particularly bright 10-year-old could get a lot out of the film and the conversations that you can have afterward, a few more years might help them grasp what exactly is happening on the isle without worrying about excess violence putting them off.
The stop-motion animation, which is exceptional, blunts some of that trauma. But, given Anderson’s choice to go for a more realistic style than, say, 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, the pain and hardship is still there. The dogs look frighteningly mangy, the adults look demonic, and even Atari looks like a vision of turmoil; his introduction sees him remove a bloody metal part from his skull.
Isle of Dogs is a good movie, perhaps even a great one; it’s certainly in the upper half of Anderson’s work, which might mean different things to different people. The dogs are adorable, and the kids perhaps more so. They are the heart of the film. But hiding beneath that is a complex, violent artery. Will a child focus on the dogs and ignore the warnings against rising xenophobia placed expertly into its runtime by Anderson? Perhaps. But that’s not what the movie hopes for and, frankly, it’s not what parents should want from it. Like other 2018 movies ostensibly for kids, Isle of Dogs has the ability to open up conversations about real-world issues for parents; their kids just have to be of the right age to be receptive to its message.