Throughout Wes Anderson’s new stop-motion animated film Isle of Dogs, I kept thinking of “Snoop Doggy Dogg,” the cartoonish stage name chosen by black hip-hop artist Calvin Broadus, but I especially recalled the observation that writer Charles O’Brien made about that name choice: “It represents the lowest estimation a human being has made of himself.”
Anderson’s fantasy takes a dog’s-eye view of mankind’s ruthlessness. But it is also complicated by the use of canines as symbols — anthropomorphic representations of assorted personality traits. These get folded into a futuristic legend about a twelve-year-old Japanese boy, Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin), who perseveres to find his pet dog Spots, who, along with all dogs, was shipped off to Trash Island after the mayor of Megasaki City announced a dog-flu quarantine. Atari and the voluble exiled creatures of Trash Island overcome the doggish, vicious — symbolically genocidal — tendencies that have plagued human history.
Isle of Dogs is full of political evocations, starting with George Orwell’s Animal Farm and the bombing of Nagasaki. But because this is the latest of Anderson’s postmodern larks, the politics are sly, hidden amid his usual jumble of visual bric-a-brac and pop-culture references. It is exhausting to watch, and probably especially exhausting for children — who are not its target audience anyway. Anderson’s hipster audience is a special breed that has evolved into a generation of “snowflakes.” Animals of this class are especially good at castigating anyone who gets in the way of their privilege; their self-estimation is based in narcissism. So the mangy, wounded puppets in Isle of Dogs resemble the fake-impoverished, posturing bohemians; they are ugly-cute. Or, to quote Anderson’s ubiquitous influence, J. D. Salinger, the film gives them “more affection than did God.” Orwell would probably retch.
It’s no surprise that one trade publication praised Isle of Dogs for “its rebellious stand against corrupt leaders manipulating the truth in order to spread fear and persecute minorities.” In its rebellion, the reviewer continued, “the movie has a political undercurrent that feels quite timely.” Timeliness is exactly the problem with Anderson’s latest movies. Isle of Dogs is in eerie sync with the self-absorption that hipster culture has developed. That’s quite some “rebellious stand” for Anderson, whose previous animated film Fantastic Mr. Fox cost $40 million dollars. Isle of Dogs looks more extravagant, intricate, and expensive (its budget has not been announced). It has a style of affluent self-absorption that appeals to the political prejudices of reviewers who exult in snowflake ideology as if they were carrying a vintage protest poster.
Four years ago, in his wildly overpraised The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson retreated into a hermetic, introverted fantasyland. The ultimate apolitical movie, it evoked European holocausts while its elaborate artifice extended to a smug disregard of history — genocide called forth merely for its lavish accoutrements and literary cachet. That smugness is repeated in Isle of Dogs’ Japanese lore.
Fantasy films are not necessarily unethical, and cinema’s great visionaries — from Griffith and Fellini to Tati and Carax — all were obsessives. But lately, Anderson’s eccentricity withdraws from the socializing impulse of his masters. His basic theme — the spoiled American child’s longing for love — gave poignant, tender complexity to The Royal Tenenbaums and especially The Darjeeling Limited, where Anderson’s reach beyond America showed new maturity (particularly in its “Hotel Chevalier” overture). Yet that film prompted his first hostile critical responses. Since then, his movies have taken on insincere, fatuous aspects.
Anderson’s longing for childhood comfort has turned hyper, like the tightly spaced scribblings that graphomaniacs used to hand out on street corners.
The abundant details-inside-details in Isle of Dogs, repeating motifs from Japanese movies, video games, and other sources, become more and more trivial and digressive, an overload of wonderment. You can practically hear an unrefined producer whispering “wonderful, terrific” in Wes’s ear after every jest. Part of this problem has to do with the animation form itself. Anderson’s longing for childhood comfort has turned hyper, like the tightly spaced scribblings that graphomaniacs used to hand out on street corners.
More effective stop-motion animation set a humane tone in Claude Barras and Celine Sciamma’s My Life as a Zucchini, which visualized childhood innocence as a universal spiritual and social condition. It sweetly evoked traditional animation while deepening its meaning, whereas the animation in Isle of Dogs foregrounds smarty-pants technology, and the dogs themselves (voiced by a roll-call of Millennial celebrities) show realistic scruff, frightening eyes, and nasty fangs — part of a smart-ass intent Anderson shares with his co-screenwriters Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman. This anti-sentimental ruse contrasts with Zack Snyder’s Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole, where avian creatures had deep, mirror-like eyes, luxurious wings, and sensuous talons that made the film’s political and social allegory intense, enchanting, and mythic. Snyder’s owls flew in dreamlike rhythms while Anderson’s puppets jerk about with a fakeness that inadvertently recalls Team America: World Police — without the satire, just the sarcasm.
At least the self-deprecating name Snoop Dogg suggests identification with animals as a sign of ghetto demoralization; enjoyment of the rapper’s low-down ribaldry implicated his audience in his own social crisis. In Isle of Dogs, Anderson’s vision is both cynical and self-pleasing. And just like ghetto rap, this snowflake’s dog fair is also a form of isolationism.
Arnaud Desplechin, the French Wes Anderson, overdesigns his movies, too. Ismael’s Ghosts can’t simply be about a filmmaker’s (Mathieu Amalric’s) creative crisis; it’s full of wild, discursive tangents. The overlapping subplots about Ismael’s long-missing wife, his cinéaste stepfather, his international-spy brother, his protective film producer, his new mistress, are all preening attempts to impress viewers with Desplechin’s erudition and cinematic sleight-of-hand.
In one very Andersonian scene, Ismael hangs wall-size reproductions of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, in which the angel has rainbow-spectrum wings, across from Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, and he constructs strings between the two for no other reason than to demonstrate “the invention of perspective in the Occident.” Film and art students everywhere will cheer. Yet, Desplechin habitually shifts perspective. His lead actress complains, “You metastasize all over, you’re everywhere on the screen.” And his mistress introduces herself with a funnier line: “I’m an astrophysicist.”
Super-bourgeois social-climbing is another trait Desplechin shares with Anderson, as when Ismael’s ethnic family backstory evokes Philip Roth’s extended Zuckerman epic (this is a real filmmaker’s version of The Meyerowitz Stories). The political subtext never amounts to much, just more layering of images and themes — at one point, Ismael’s unfinished movie (set in Tajikistan) cuts into the movie we’re watching, at another Desplechin re-creates the spectacular speeding-train window montage of Bertolucci’s The Conformist. Top that, dogcatcher!
This overloaded storytelling is a timely cultural problem: It shows a loss of narrative certainty — and political instability — for Desplechin and Anderson’s generation of filmmakers. While news media fight for control of the social narrative, these filmmakers can’t decide which story deserves focused attention. Instead of widening the public’s imagination, they constrict it. Both auteurs shrivel into their spoiled-child selves. The self-dramatization in Ismael’s film actually evades personal responsibility just like Anderson’s self-referential dog-puppet toyland. Both illustrate Millennial methods of refusing self-examination and avoiding conscientiousness.