Even if you’ve never seen a Wes Anderson film before, you can spot one out from a mile away. His attention to detail, color palettes and symmetrical frames are part of his MO and planted him as one of the most exquisite auteur directors. Four years after his Oscar-nominated film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson is back with another stop-motion animated film. In 2008, Anderson wowed audiences with his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. It not only captured the playful spirit of the children’s novel, but it had plenty of dark, adult elements of its own. His newest picture, Isle of Dogs
has, more or less, the same formula: animals trying to fight against the (literal) man as a metaphor for racism. While not as good as its animated predecessor, Isle of Dogs’ still manages to charm audiences with its fairy-tale setting and adorable furry friends.
Set 20 years into the future, Isle of Dogs takes place in Nagasaki, Japan, where there is an outbreak of a deadly dog flu. In an attempt to combat the disease, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) decrees to send every dog to an isolated island called Trash Island. 100’s of dogs run rampant, desperate for food and any human compassion. The only dog who doesn’t care about eating garbage and going without daily belly rubs is Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray dog whose time on the streets has made him more robust than his house-broken comrades. All of a sudden, a young boy, Atari, crash lands on the island with one mission in mind: to find his lost dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). Chief and his pack reluctantly decide to help Atari find his job and end the discrimination against their kind.
The dogs are the best part of this film. Not only are they cute and prompt non-stop squealing, but their stories have more depth than the human characters. Sure the setting may be a War World III-esque nuclear war setting, but the dogs’ want for human love is real and relatable. In fact, the dogs are more human than the actual human characters themselves. The Japanese residents simply exist as antagonists for the dogs and don’t even have proper subtitles for their dialogue, though Frances McDormand occasionally stands in as a news anchor translator. The only human who speaks English is a white, American foreign exchange student, Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) who fights for a revolutionary “Pro-Dog” group.
That brings us to the film’s biggest drawback: cultural insensitivity. Ever since its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, Isle of Dogs has drawn heavy criticism for its appropriation of Japanese culture. This is hardly Anderson’s first complaint about cultural appropriation (he’s had it for Darjeeling Limited and Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou), but it’s interesting to see the different takes on this controversy. Some people take offense to the boy’s name being Atari and the fact that the Japanese try to kill the dogs with poison wasabi. Others just chalk it up to Anderson’s bizarre and cartoonish humor that is present in all of his films. Though whether his humor still holds up in 2018 is a whole different article on its own.
However, one of the film’s serious problems is with the use of a white savior. There is no reason for an American exchange student to be present in this narrative; Tracy ’s just there as this morally superior girl who seems to know better than the Japanese people themselves. She’s the leader of this pro-dog movement and is the end all be all for the revolution. Anderson probably wanted another English speaker to drive the human plot forward, but why not just give that role to another Japanese character? A grievance in an otherwise excellent film, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
While the animation may outshine the writing, Isle of Dogs is still an Anderson film through and through: filled with wonder and intricate detail in every scene with a warm color palette and sharp dialogue to match. His beautifully symmetrical frames and shots give homage to the Japanese greats such as Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi. It may not be as memorable as Fantastic Mr. Fox or The Grand Budapest Hotel, but it’s certainly in his top five.