Animation saved Wes Anderson from self-parody.
By the time he released his fifth feature, the exotic Indian travelogue The Darjeeling Limited (2007), even many of Anderson’s biggest fans (myself among them) had begun to grow a little wary of his — there’s no other way to put this — shtick. His scripts were still funny, his visuals still brilliant, his direction of actors top-notch … but his stories had grown staid. The themes of sons (and, to a lesser extent, daughters) attempting to cast off their familial baggage had begun to feel rote, the beats predictable to the point of laziness (you could expect a sudden tragic turn to occur roughly two-thirds of the way through), and the characters (affluent white people lost in the fog of their own ennui) grating.
It wouldn’t have done for an artist as singular and exacting as Anderson to suddenly switch gears and try his hand at, say, a superhero blockbuster or a violent slasher film (cue the pitch-perfect Saturday Night Live parody), but he needed to find a new off-beat path to traverse, even if it only ran parallel to the one he’d taken up to that point.
Fortunately, animation offered him just such a path. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) showcased a looser, wilder version of Anderson’s vision, even as the medium itself called for more painstaking attention to detail and minutiae. With Fox, Anderson was able to explore his favorite themes and familiar quirks, but the limitless possibilities offered by the canvas allowed him to tap into a freer sense of story than ever before.
Never one to be confused for a neo-realist, Anderson’s worlds had always been slightly to the left of our own, but now even the basic laws of physics no longer applied. Such freedom clearly appealed to Anderson, as he imbued his next two live-action films – Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – with the same dose of magical realism by way of Tex Avery. Characters could get struck by lighting and walk away dazed but unharmed, or zip around the Swiss Alps on toboggans at Roadrunner-like speeds. Anderson had previously flirted with an escalating sense of adventurism (particularly in his 2004 seafaring dramedy The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), but now he was willing to go all out.
Anderson’s transition into this more overtly fantastical storytelling mode also did wonders for the deep sense of pathos that he’d imbued all of his stories with, as well as the increasingly central political concerns that he began to focus on with Fox (which, for all of its easy charm and old-school whimsy, is surprisingly fatalistic in its examination of materialism and consumerism, as well as environmental devastation). A sense of melancholy for the larger woes of the world now eclipsed the somewhat solipsistic melancholy he’d previously reserved for his individual characters.
This new prioritizing found an apotheosis in Grand Budapest, which stands as one of the more thoughtful explorations of the creeping dangers of fascism made within the last few years, and which now reads as something of an allegorical prophecy as we again find ourselves clinging to the “faint glimmers of civilization in this barbaric slaughterhouse known as humanity.”
Early word on Anderson’s new animated feature, Isle of Dogs, suggests that he has continued along this exciting trajectory. Another awe-inspiringly precise piece of stop-motion animation, the political concerns are even more central this time around. Taking place in the Japanese archipelagos 20 years into the future, the story sees all the dogs of the fictional city of Megasaki exiled to a floating barge of debris and waste called, simply, Trash Island, after a species-wide outbreak of “dog flu” threatens to infect the human population. The thrust of the narrative concerns the adventures of a young boy who journeys from Megasaki to Trash Island in order to rescue his own exiled pup with the help of a band of fellow canine refugees.
The film’s political themes are immediately apparent: environmental catastrophe, disease control, immigration policy, a refugee crisis – heavy stuff for an animated film about talking animals, even one tailored towards an adult art-house crowd. It would seem that such a film could come only from the mind of Wes Anderson – who, to the trepidation of some viewers, has never been shy about visiting unfortunate fates upon animals in his films.
And yet, this would not be the first animated film featuring talking dogs to deal explicitly with these concerns. Much has been made of Isle of Dogs’s debts to the work of two of Japan’s most beloved filmmakers – Akira Kurosawa and animation maestro Hayao Miyazaki – with Anderson himself citing their overriding influence on the setting and style of his film. But when it comes to plot and theme, there is a very different, and much lesser known work that should first spring to mind: The Plague Dogs (1982).
Adapted and directed by Martin Rosen from author Richard Adams’ 1977 novel, The Plague Dogs concerns a pair of dogs – the brave, but angry and resentful Rowf, and the mentally unstable, but naturally trusting Snitter (voiced by John Hurt and Chris Benjamin, respectively) – who, after being subjected to horrific medical experimentation at an animal testing lab in northern England, escape, only to find themselves lost in the unfamiliar countryside. They are soon the subject of a massive manhunt (doghunt), as their former captors come to believe that they’ve been infected with the bubonic plague. Their only hope for escape comes in the form of an uninhabited island a few miles off the lakeshore coast, which may not even exist.
The narrative and thematic parallels between The Plague Dogs and Isle of Dogs are obvious from even a quick perusal of their synopses. Beyond that, they seem to share some visual similarities in their character design, as well as their ashen, muted color palettes. (Both recall the work of Canadian painter Alex Colville, who previously served as a visual reference for Anderson, although any intentional influence he may have had on Rosen’s film can only be guessed at).
Indeed, Anderson has cited The Plague Dogs as an influence on a couple of occasions, noting that it was one of two dog-in-peril animated films he watched in preparation for his latest (the other being Disney’s 101 Dalmatians). He also briefly mentioned it while doing press for Fantastic Mr. Fox. According to Anderson, the movie was first recommended to him by Noah Baumbach (with whom he co-wrote Fox).
Yet, for all the surface-level similarities between the two films, Anderson is quick to note that his film is “much more cheerful” than Rosen’s, which he calls a “very, very bleak movie.”
Such a staunch differentiation seems a necessary concession for any potential audience that may be familiar with The Plague Dogs, which, granted, is not likely to be very large considering how little-seen the movie is. (It was barely released on VHS, never released on DVD in the U.S., and the Region 2 DVD is out of print. It has disappeared from VOD altogether. Shout Factory! announced a restored director’s cut to be released on Blu-Ray late last year, but complications have forced them to postpone the release indefinitely.) Anderson’s description of it as a “very, very bleak movie” doesn’t begin to do it justice. The Plague Dogs is an utterly devastating film, one that will emotionally cripple you as soon as it begins, and that will haunt you long after it’s over.
The Plague Dogs marked the second collaboration between Rosen and Adams — it was Rosen who made the 1978 adaptation of Adams’ 1972 novel Watership Down. That book sold millions of copies, and the film became a cult classic, eventually finding a home in the Criterion Collection (one the few animated works in that catalogue … alongside Fantastic Mr. Fox).
Watership Down’s success is easily understandable. Long held as one of the most mature, even disturbing, children’s movies ever produced, it still offers a good amount of humor, hope, and beauty.
Not so with The Plague Dogs, at least when it comes to humor or hope. What beauty it does possess – conveyed most immediately in the depiction of unbreakable friendship between its central pair – is suffused with deep pain and even deeper sorrow. Unlike Watership Down, which ends on a triumphant, if melancholy, note, there is no semblance of a happy ending here. The tragedy that our heroes undergo is neither avenged nor redeemed through any form of rescue or transcendence. The only escape they are offered is the sweet release of death, although it is at least a death that they choose for themselves. They are afforded their dignity, for what little catharsis this gives the viewer.
If this comes off as a criticism of the film, it is not. We as an audience may expect catharsis, but we are not owed it, least of all by a film that is targeting our very conscience. If, as Roger Ebert said, movies are “empathy machines,” then The Plague Dogs is an A-Bomb of Empathy.
You could watch the death of Bambi’s mom on a loop for hours, and still not be emotionally prepared for the horrors shown in the The Plague Dogs, which intentionally recall those of the holocaust in all their clinical inhumanity. (The film opens with Rowf being drowned in an observation tank, only to be resuscitated. We come to learn that this is his daily routine.)
This would be easier to digest if, once the central duo escaped the testing facility, the horrors stopped. But they don’t. Tracked by a fearful and heavily-armed populace, as well as the military; bereft of food or shelter; with their very sanity slipping by the day; the natural world proves just as capricious as man’s. There is one scene of sudden violence about halfway through the film that is so shocking and upsetting that it’s a testament to the willpower of any viewer who can watch it without jumping out their seats.
This doesn’t even begin to take into account some of the scenes which the studio cut from the film for its initial release, which I won’t spoil for anyone who manages to track it down.
And yet, for as brutal as the film is, and as hesitant as I am to recommend it, it is a necessary film. Necessary not only because of its underlying message regarding animal testing, but because it is a full-on humanist masterpiece, one that should be vaunted alongside other classic cinema passions – animal and human alike – such as Au Hasard Balthazar and The Passion of Joan of Arc.
What makes The Plague Dogs most interesting at this current moment is that, even though it can be viewed as an allegory for any number of human rights issues, it feels mythopoetic in a way that, presumably, Isle of Dogs does not (although not having seen it yet, I cannot fully make that claim). Anderson, in using animation as a vehicle for a freer sense of storytelling, also found a springboard for his political concerns. The Plague Dogs, on the other hand, found a way to take a mostly grounded story, one directly linked to serious and specific political issues, and make it feel totemic, sacred.
In the end, animation offered Wes Anderson the chance to rejuvenate his creativity, and allowed audiences to look at his films in a new way. Martin Rosen, on the other hand, had his career as a feature director cut short because of how upsetting – and therefore unmarketable – his second (and second-to-last) film proved to be.
But for whatever similarities the two films have in common, however comparable they are or are not, their shared medium of animation provided two distinct artists the chance to tell two necessary stories about man’s penchant for atrocity, via the depiction of man’s best friend. In so doing, they offer us the possibility, small as it is, to do better by them going forward, here, in the real world.
Now go pet your damn dog.