Movie Review: “Isle of Dogs” – Beautiful But Flawed

Written by Jeremiah Greville April 20, 2018

Isle of Dogs

Wow. Another Wes Anderson film, another utterly unique and enchanting movie-going experience. I’m a Wes Anderson fan, so this review will certainly contain a little bias. But I say that at the outset only to state what’s probably obvious by now: if you DISLIKE Wes Anderson films, than this one won’t change your mind. It’s incredibly original and lovingly crafted, but it’s still a Wes Anderson film through and through. The characters are emotionally stunted and aloof, the shots are painstakingly crafted, and the entire thing feels like the vegan, artisanal, locally-sourced gluten-free version of an average movie. It won’t be to everyone’s taste. But thatY’s okay—it’s a Wes Anderson film. First, however, we have to talk about the racism.

Isle of Dogs was written, produced, and directed by Wes Anderson. It’s voiced by an all-star cast of actors, but none are really worth mentioning here. I know that sounds strange, but you have to see the film to understand why. Each English vocal performance is muted and deadpan, designed to disarm rather than feel natural. It works well, but leaves very little to say about the performances. My only take away is that Ed Norton sounds exactly like Jason Schwartzman in certain circumstances. The real story of the voice acting in Isle of Dogs is the fact that all but two human characters speak un-subtitled Japanese. The dogs are the English-speaking protagonists.

“I’ve gone to find my dog.”

The story tells us why: Isle of Dogs takes place in a near-future Japan where ‘dog flu’ has threatened the population. As an extreme solution, all dogs are banished to a nearby Trash Island to fend for themselves until a cure is found. That is, until a young Japanese boy travels to Trash Island to find his dog, and gains assistance from a local pack. This causes an uproar back home as multiple parties seek to aid or impede his efforts. It’s clear that Wes Anderson is having fun throughout the film with the idea that dogs and humans don’t speak the same language. His intent is clear, and that’s the simple reason why the dogs speak English and (most of) the humans don’t. But, obviously, this brings us into tricky territory regarding cultural appropriation, ‘othering’, and racism.

Isle of Dogs

Most critics who’ve found issue with these aspects of the film have given Wes Anderson the benefit of the doubt. Isle of Dogs doesn’t insult Japanese culture, nor does it mean to. And that’s clear from watching the film. But it does ‘other’ Japanese culture and its people. By design, we sympathize with the dogs more than the humans because we understand their language. Of course, this also means that we care less about the humans. And since most of the humans are Japanese, this unfortunately reinforces some uncomfortable ideas. Japanese culture is presented affectionately, but as something distant and different and foreign. Japanese people are (thankfully) presented as individuals, but never as people ‘like us’. The audience is rarely led to see themselves in the Japanese characters.

“I don’t think I can stomach any more of this garbage.”

This is made worse by the presence of a single white-American character. Greta Gerwig voices Tracy Walker, an American exchange student fighting for the dogs. At worst, she’s a white-saviour stereotype meant to show how much better (white) Americans are than everyone else. Like I said above, most people aren’t accusing Wes Anderson of cruel or racist intent. Tracy is a fun and interesting character, and her place in the story makes sense, considering the structure. But because she’s the only white character in the film, speaks the same language as the dogs (from an audience perspective), and comes down on the ‘right’ side of the issue of the film, her presence undermines the other Japanese characters. To put it bluntly, Tracy’s presence implies that all (white) Americans are good and noble, while only SOME Japanese people are. That’s not good.

Isle of Dogs

If you take Tracy out of the narrative, the problems are reduced, but don’t disappear. While his take on the culture is certainly filtered through privileged—and limited—Western sensibilities, it’s also undoubtedly ”Wes Anderson”. By that, I mean that it was always going to be a fantasy version of a real place, a fantasy version of a real culture. As Alison Wilmore wrote for Buzzfeed news, one of the most important things to keep in mind here is that it’s “not the idea of creating a fantasy Japan that’s Anderson’s problem — it’s the underlying sense that he wouldn’t be able to conceive of a real one.” However, even she describes the film as a “charming story about humanity’s rapport with canines”. That latter point doesn’t undermine the former. Isle of Dogs is an enchanting, lovely film. But it has blind spots and problems that must be acknowledged along with its strengths.

“There’s no future on Trash Island.”

But now on to those specific strengths. Isle of Dogs is incredible to watch. Every scene on Trash Island is full of immaculate detail and incredible artistry made all the more impressive because it’s, well…trash. The dog and human characters are all gorgeously cartoonish without entering uncanny valley territory. Despite being set in the near future, the film has a timeless analog appeal. Like 2014’s It Follows, the time period is kept deliberately vague to reinforce the film’s dreamlike qualities. It’s a retro-futuristic throwback to early adventure films and cartoons. While still filled with adult themes, Isle of Dogs is all about rocket-ships and space suits and school clubs and lovable dogs. Unlike Anderson’s other films, it’s also highly accessible to kids.

Isle of Dogs

Really, there’s a sense throughout Isle of Dogs, and much of Wes Anderson’s work, that we’re seeing his childhood filtered through different sensibilities and perspectives. The Life Aquatic was about childhood disillusionment. Moonrise Kingdom was about childhood romance. And Isle of Dogs is about childhood dreams. Despite the problematic framing of Japanese culture, the protagonist Atari Kobayashi seems like a clear stand-in for Wes Anderson himself. This makes the film surprisingly intimate and emotional, and I found myself tearing up several times throughout. It’s lovely and loving, and wholeheartedly earns the name “Isle of Dogs”. Say it aloud a couple of times in case you still haven’t caught on to the joke.

“Whatever happened to man’s best friend?”

Isle of Dogs is an enchanting film, a near-masterpiece that stands proudly alongside Wes Anderson’s best work. But we can’t discuss it in detail without covering the cultural missteps it takes. I’m not sure if there’s a version of this film that can fully avoid those missteps, but I’d be interested in seeing what the Japanese edition might entail. If you’re a Wes Anderson fan, then go in prepared: it’s easily his most emotional work to date. But if you’ve never enjoyed his films, feel free to skip this one. Isle of Dogs is wonderful, but flawed. Its quality doesn’t excuse its problems, but its problems don’t erase its quality. It’s a complicated film to discuss, but one with a simple message: dogs are great. And if you love dogs, you might want to give this film a chance.

My Rating: 8.5/10

Isle of Dogs - Poster

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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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