Film review: Isle of Dogs

Wes Anderson’s wonderful new stop-motion animated film is called Isle of Dogs. It’s set in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki, where a recent outbreak of dog flu and snout fever has pushed Mayor Kobayashi to deport all canines to Trash Island. The mayor’s 12-year-old ward, Atari, pilots a tiny plane to the island, where he is taken in by a motley crew led by the stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), in order to rescue his own dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Courtney B. Vance, Fisher Stevens, Harvey Keitel, Bob Balaban, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Frank Wood, Kunichi Nomura and Yoko Ono also give vocal performances in the film. Like Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, the film straddles the line between child and adult entertainment, but has more than enough comedy, charm, and beauty to satisfy both audiences.

The story is cute and very funny, but not as interesting as Fantastic Mr. Fox or any of Anderson’s recent great live-action films, such as Moonrise Kingdom or The Grand Budapest Hotel. There are two romantic plot lines (one human, one canine) which don’t completely land. In general, I felt that the entire film was a bit too fast-paced. There are a few tender moments between Atari and Chief; they could have been longer and there could have been a few more. So too with the scenes of Spots and his cannibal dog-pack. I wanted more time to enjoy being in Wes Anderson’s world. The director’s preoccupation with sex, alcohol and death is present, and especially humorous as it contrasts with the film’s less-adult themes. Still, Isle of Dogs is a film that will be remembered not for its plot, but for its gorgeous visuals.

On the surface, the film is a stop-motion animated Western pastiche of Japanese aesthetics, but neither the animation nor the pastiche are conventional. The animators use so many different materials (fabric dog-fur, cotton ball clouds, squirming octopus tentacles, scrap metal, colored glass, neon lights, intricately detailed murals) to create a world that is tactile and enchanting. Anderson’s signature symmetrical compositions, knolling, snap-zooms, flat camera movement, and chapter headings contribute to the creation of his fantasy world. These styles are combined in one scene which focuses on the composition of a knolled bento box; what should be boring is unpredictably fascinating. When the dogs brawl, we see a dust-cloud with randomly protruding limbs, as in a Looney Tunes cartoon. Anderson appropriates both traditional Japanese and Neo Tokyo aesthetics for his syncretic style. It transcends mere pastiche because it is unique and self-aware. There are two scenes which feature comical haikus, the second of which is, “What has happened / To man’s best friend / Cherry blossoms fall.” It is clear that Isle of Dogs is not exploitation.

The soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat, who has now done the soundtrack for Anderson’s four most recent films, as well as last year’s The Shape of Water, follows the same pattern. It includes Taiko drumming, themes from Kurosawa movies (Seven Samurai, Drunken Angel), a few pieces of classical music and some psychedelic music from the 1960’s.

Some have accused Wes Anderson of racism for his appropriation of Japanese aesthetics and his apparently stereotypical portrayal of the Japanese people in the film, which is alleged to include a (sincere) “white savior” narrative. The first claim is groundless; Isle of Dogs is transformative and its aesthetic is totally it’s own. There is more merit to the second claim, however, and while I was watching the film I agreed. The Japanese accent is mockingly exaggerated and the most of the Japanese characters are totally flat besides their irrational and virulent hatred for man’s best friend. In this situation, Tracy Walker, a naively confident foreign exchange student, appears to be mutts’ only hope. However, when she and her classmates march on stage to protest dog-deportation during one of Mayor Kobayashi’s Hitler-esque speeches, her visa is publicly revoked and she is hilariously humiliated. In the end, it is in fact Atari who saves the day. Rather than perpetrate a “white savior” narrative, as Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times claims, Tracy’s storyline is in fact a critical parody of those narratives.

On another level, Isle of Dogs is a film made specifically for the Japanese people. As Moeko Fuji explains in her article for The New Yorker, “What ‘Isle of Dogs’ Gets Right About Japan,” the mostly-untranslated Japanese dialogue features many jokes and references that would only make sense to natives. Also, the amount of Japanese people involved in the production of the film is unprecedented. When critics like Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest calls it “racist” and “infuriatingly bad,” he fails to see how Isle of Dogs intentionally pokes fun at white people like him who think they know how a realistic portrayal of Japanese culture should be.

On the other hand, a few critics have overrated the film’s political impact. CJ Johnson of ABC Radio wrote that, “Anderson’s looking at war, retribution, notions of nationality and nationalism, isolationism, culture and individualism.” I don’t think it’s that deep; maybe I’m missing something.

★★★☆

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