[THERE WILL BE NO SPOILERS OR MAJOR PLOT DETAILS IN THIS REVIEW, ONLY WHAT WAS REVEALED IN TRAILERS/INTERVIEWS]
“Isle of Dogs” is a stop-motion animated film written/produced/directed by the famous Wes Anderson, and it stars some big names like Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum as some very good boys (dogs). Set in a futuristic Japan, the conflict involves young Atari Kobayashi, nephew and ward of the corrupt Mayor Kobayashi, searching for his dog on the isolated Trash Island, where all dogs have been exiled to due to a dog-virus that causes everyone to be scared of their own pets.
Personally, I’ve actually never seen a Wes Anderson film before (that might surprise some of you, but anyone who grew up in the area that I did could vouch that none of us were really talking about that style of film when we were in high school) but I do love stop-motion animation and I do understand Anderson’s credibility as an artistic filmmaker. Upon seeing trailers I was also interested due to the setting being in Japan, especially since I enjoyed Laika Animation’s “Kubo and the Two Strings” (2016), a stop-motion film having a Feudal-Japanese setting. Besides, despite me being a “cat person” (because you apparently have to pick one), who doesn’t love good dogs?
The film follows characters in two settings, Megasaki City and Trash Island. Starting with the latter, Atari crash lands on the island and is found by the five dogs who roam in their own pack. All are enthusiastic about helping Atari except Chief (Bryan Cranston), but he reluctantly accepts the task anyway and the crew travels deeper into Trash Island to find Atari’s old bodyguard dog. Meanwhile in the city, we see the political side of the decision to outlaw dogs with dictator-like policy from Kobayashi, opposed by a “Science Party” that is making strides to cure the dog viruses and bring the pets back. The film also spends time on a foreign exchange student named Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) who is the only student vocalizing concerns over the Kobayashi dynasty.
Throughout these different sub-plots and stories we get, I personally enjoyed the moments with Atari and the dogs. Anderson takes the time to give these dogs different personalities and backgrounds and the interactions they have with the boy Atari make this a very charming film. For example, Chief tends not to get along with the other dogs or always has a different opinion because he’s a stray. Anderson makes sure that the audience’s immersion is through the dogs themselves by giving them very human characteristics. The animation itself is precisely executed and ended up being very visually appealing and a contributing factor to the movie’s adventurous feel.
Anderson makes an artistic decision to have mostly all the human characters only speak Japanese, and I liked this for two reasons. One being what I mentioned earlier, the audience’s perspective is further drawn towards that of the dogs. Secondly, it gives the animation more time to shine because you start to look for visual storytelling rather than exposition. I also think the film is structured very well with a relatively short runtime of 1 hour and 41 minutes, because there are elements to unpack and I didn’t feel dissatisfied with any sub-plot being ignored or incomplete. Everything does seem to tie up in the end and I’ve gotta give it to Anderson for that one.
While I did enjoy this film and don’t think this movie had any malicious intent or should cause any rioting, I do have to point out what I thought was a little problematic with the use of the Japanese setting. After the movie was done and my brain went into “what was wrong with it?” mode, I ended up asking myself one big question: “Why Japan?”
This movie is about a psuedo-facist leader outlawing a largely innocent group and getting away with it by brainwashing the public that doesn’t seem to know any better. To be completely honest, this sounds a lot more like America than Japan. While Anderson used things in the culture like taiko drums, haikus, cherry blossoms, etc…all of this seemed to serve no real purpose other than to be an aesthetic. Think of it like when you have this amazing picture ready to upload to instagram, and while searching for the right filter there was one called “Japanese” and that’s the one you decide to go with. Again, I highly doubt any of this was intentional, but using the “Japan implies that a foreign setting was required to make us believe an outrageous policy like fear-mongering the public to dislike dogs…and unfortunately Japan took the fall on this one for a story that I could have very much believed happening in the Western world (apparently Anderson has done a similar thing with India in “The Darjeeling Limited”…guess I should check that one out).
I’m all for having an homage to another culture and for having more movies be international, but the culture or its members didn’t play the significant role in the movie that I was led to believe…it just coexisted while we focused on the Dogs. This is so odd to me because I commended Anderson for being more focused and humanizing the dogs, and having the humans speak only Japanese up above…but at the same time it feels a little gross because you dehumanize the people of the culture but still use the culture as a setting for the film.
Truthfully, I could’ve ignored ALL of this if it weren’t for one thing that tipped me over the often blurred line between appreciation and appropriation…and that is the use of Greta Gerwig’s character, Tracy Walker. The fact that a character from Ohio (because Lord knows OHIO is the most woke place on the planet) is the only one amongst the masses that can see the corruption of the Kobayashi dynasty really leaves a sour taste in my mouth, similar to when I see the “White Savior” trope. Sure, Atari is the hero to the dogs…but he spends most of the movie with them on Trash Island being out of the spotlight to the rest of the characters while Tracy is over in Megasaki City actually getting people to rally behind the cause. By doing this, the film really does show that the use of Japanese culture is poorly thought-out despite the use of Japanese actors and imagery, because at the end of the day they could’ve done this with ANY foreign culture and it wouldn’t have made a difference. This belittles everyone into this one bubble of “Eastern” rather than showing what is unique about the hundreds of cultures that aren’t in the West.
While definitely being a little problematic, “Isle of Dogs” still manages to be a technically impressive and positive story with its own unique charisma. With all things considered, “Isle of Dogs” gets a 7/10.