Sit! Isle of Dogs and Christian Obedience

Josh Larsen

“I. Don’t. Sit.”

So says Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), one of the hundreds of dogs who have been deported from a Japanese city to a nearby island in Isle of Dogs, a stop-motion comedy from writer-director Wes Anderson. Chief is a stray, unlike the former pets who make up most of the island’s population. “You’re being disobedient,” growls Rex (Edward Norton), one of the formerly domesticated dogs. “Sit!”

Like Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs delights in the impeccably detailed, hand-crafted aesthetic of stop-motion animation. I even spotted a tiny flea ruffling through the wind-blown fur of one of the dogs. Such visual intricacy is matched by a story that’s equally rich and detailed. While notably one of Anderson’s most political films (the talk of deportation; a setting and plot that recalls the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II), the movie is also theologically resonant, especially concerning the price and promise of obedience. When a 12-year-old boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin) arrives on the island looking to rescue his own confiscated dog, the pack—including Chief, Rex, and a few others—must decide if they’re willing to give up their wild ways to help him. Free to roam, should they now follow this boy’s commands?

Rex, having had owners before, is more willing to follow Atari’s lead (I love the clipped eagerness Norton gives him). For Chief it’s a tougher sell. To him, domestication is the negation of his free will. Indeed, Chief is not only reluctant to serve a human, he wonders if he may not even be capable of it. Recounting a time when he instinctively attacked a child who only wanted to pet him, Chief says, “I don’t know why I bite.” Paging the Apostle Paul.

But if Chief regards himself as free on the island—the master of his own fate—that’s an illusion. Suffering from “snout fever” (a convenient excuse for the dog-hating mayor’s deportation program), the animals’ health is fading. Essentially the city’s garbage dump, the island offers no healthy source of nutrition. The dogs there are liberated from their humans, in a sense, but doomed to die. Early on—amidst the soft, refracted glow of the green, yellow, and red sake bottles that have piled up on the island—Atari cares for Rex and the others in the pack (amusingly voiced by Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Bob Balaban). As he cleans their wounds and shares treats, Chief stands apart, obstinate and independent.

Even though he’s a dog—a stop-motion one, at that—Chief is all too reminiscent of our stubborn selves. In an age when individual preference and free will are considered ultimate values, none of us wants to wear a dog collar. Yet that's not what Christian obedience involves. Yes, God is sovereign over all, including our choices. Yet—maddeningly, beautifully, terrifyingly—he allows us to choose (or not choose) obedience to him. In the Canons of Dort, we’re reminded that “just as by the fall humans did not cease to be human, endowed with intellect and will, and just as sin, which has spread through the whole human race, did not abolish the nature of the human race but distorted and spiritually killed it, so also this divine grace of regeneration does not act in people as if they were blocks and stones; nor does it abolish the will and its properties or coerce a reluctant will by force, but spiritually revives, heals, reforms, and—in a manner at once pleasing and powerful—bends it back.” Or as John Piper writes, “God is always decisive in such a way that man’s agency is real, and his responsibility remains.”

Maddeningly, beautifully, terrifyingly—God allows us to choose (or not choose) obedience to him.

So, as human beings we do possess the capacity for choice, and more responsibility for those choices than some would like to admit. In Isle of Dogs, Chief eventually chooses to follow Atari on his adventure—though from a distance. (Slight spoilers ahead.) Along the way, the two of them are separated from the rest of the pack and come across an abandoned amusement park. A rusty slide catches Atari’s attention, despite—or perhaps because of—a sign indicating he’s not tall enough to go down it. Atari and Chief have a stare-down, in which Chief makes it clear he thinks it’s too dangerous. But the boy does what he wants. (Refreshingly, Atari struggles with free will too; the humans in Isle of Dogs aren’t meant to stand in as as god figures.)

It’s not long after Atari’s rebellious slide—and after Chief has let it slip that he cares for the boy—that the two bond over an unlikely game of fetch. “I’m not doing this because you told me to,” Chief mutters. In a sense this is more stubbornness—another assertion of his will—but it’s also a wry picture of willing Christian obedience, an obedience built on our relationship with God. Just as our obedience leads to our flourishing, so is Chief’s game of fetch followed by Atari giving him a much-needed bath.

“If you love me, keep my commandments,” Jesus said. By that he did not mean, “Sit!” Christian obedience involves subservience, yes, but in relationship and in trust that it is for our ultimate good. By succumbing to those suds, Chief embodies what G.K. Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy: “The worship of will is the negation of will. To admire mere choice is to refuse to choose.” True freedom, then, lies in choosing loving obedience.

Isle of Dogs is stuffed with delightful creations: taiko percussionists who open and close the movie; a pug seer (Tilda Swinton) who gets her pronouncements from watching television; and falling, stop-motion cherry blossoms, which are almost as beautiful as the real thing. There are also remote-controlled robot dogs, sent to the island by the mayor in order to retrieve Atari. “I can’t smell him,” Chief notes of the metal hound, in a succinct summation of what it means to be alive. Indeed, we’re living, breathing beings, empowered by grace to choose relationship with our Creator, rather than spiritless automatons made to follow commands at the push of a button. We’re free—not in the way Chief initially understands, guarding his territory like a beloved bone—but free in the way the love of a boy allows.

Topics: Movies