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Josh Reviews Isle of Dogs

I adored Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson’s first foray into stop-motion animation from back in 2010, and so for quite some time I have been anticipating the release of his follow-up, Isle of Dogs, which Mr. Anderson wrote and directed.  The film is set in Japan in the near future, when fears of a dog flu virus lead to all dogs being outlawed and sent to “trash island.”  When a young boy, Atari, journeys to trash island to search for his dog, Spots, he befriends a pack of dogs that includes Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray) King (Bob Balaban), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum).  Together, they seek to reunite Spots and Atari, and also, along the way, they just might wind up defeating the dog-hating Mayor Kobayashi and overturning the ban on man’s best friend.

There is a lot to love about Isle of Dogs, and I throughly enjoyed the experience of watching this beautifully-crafted fable-like story unfold.  The film is also, unfortunately, burdened by some issues of cultural appropriation and sensitivity which have weighed on me as I have considered the film after walking out of the theater.

Let’s start with what’s great.  Although many American audiences think of animation as being for kids only (and I was shocked that there were some families with very young kids who were in my screening — good lord, those kids/parents must have been horrified if they went in expecting a G-rated Disney-type story!!), Isle of Dogs is unabashedly aimed at adults.  I referred to the film, in the previous paragraph, as a “fable,” because, for me, the film had that feeling.  Even beyond the fact that most of the film’s characters are talking dogs, the film has an aspect of exaggeration that made it feel, to me, almost like a fairy tale.  And yet, beautifully combined with that structure to the story, was a film featuring many wonderfully nuanced and sophisticated characters and relationships.  Just as was the case in Fantastic Mr. Fox, here in Isle of Dogs the main focus of the story is on the journey of these characters.

Just like Mr. Anderson’s live-action work, Isle of Dogs is filled to overflowing with a wonderful array of characters, played by extremely talented comedic and dramatic actors.  Bryan Cranston is magnificent as Chief, an angry, loner “stray” dog who, over the course of the story, gradually learns to open himself up to friendship and companionship.  This is a fantastic dramatic performance, full stop.  Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and the Jeff Goldblum are each fantastic as the members of the pack who follow (and often bicker with) Chief.  They’re each so funny, and they each get a ton of wonderful lines and moments in the film.  Equally entertaining in smaller roles are Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Ken Watanabe, Fisher Stevens, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Liev Schreiber, Courtney B. Vance, and — are you sitting down? — Yoko Ono (yes, Yoko Ono!!), and many others.

The stop-motion is absolutely gorgeous.  In scene after scene I was bowled over by the depth and beauty of what the artists responsible for this film’s stop-motion animation were able to accomplish.  It is extraordinary.

As is always the case for a Wes Anderson film, Isle of Dogs is meticulously designed.  The look of each character, of all the sets and locations and props and costumes and more — all of this has clearly been carefully thought through and developed.  The film is awash in extraordinary detail that you can swim in as you watch the film.  There is so much that I will need repeat viewings to be able to soak in properly.  (I was particularly taken by the sequence in which we watch, step by step by step, as sushi rolls are prepared by a chef.  I also loved, in a horrifying sort of way, the scene in which we watch, from overhead, a kidney transplant take place!  I can only imagine what the family with young kids watching the movie thought of THAT particular sequence!!)

Unfortunately, I found myself questioning the way Mr. Anderson’s film handles the Japanese setting and characters.

All of Mr. Anderson’s films contain a certain degree of exaggeration and caricature.  None of Mr. Anderson’s films are exactly realistic — they use a very stylized approach to tell their story.  Isle of Dogs is the same.  The Japan in this movie is not supposed to be an exact representation of Japan.  (And when you add in the film’s futuristic setting, we’re of course taking even more steps away from the actual Japan of today.)  As is the case in most/all of Mr. Anderson’s movies, this stylization leads to some moments of great humor.  And yet, I found something a little uncomfortable about watching a white man’s stylized depiction of Japan, one that walks a very fine line, coming very close towards the lampooning aspects of Japanese culture.  I am not sure, frankly, whether I am correct in feeling this way.  I tend to NOT be someone who believes that story-tellers can only tell stories about people who are just like them.  I don’t think that only Japanese people should be able to tell stories set in Japan and/or featuring Japanese characters.  And yet, it’s the way that I found myself laughing, at points during the film, at the Japanese setting and characters — in a way that I feel the film was designed to make an audience-member laugh — that put me a little on edge.

This was exacerbated by some other curious story-telling choices, primarily the decision to have all the human characters speak their native language, untranslated (while the dogs all spoke English).  Since this film is set in Japan and almost all of the human characters are Japanese, this means that almost all of that dialogue is gibberish to an American audience.  It makes the Japanese characters feel a step removed from the audience.  They become an “other,” almost alien, especially compared to the very human, sympathetic dog characters, all of whom do speak English.  I am curious as to why Mr. Anderson made this decision.  My guess is because he wanted to put the audience in the dog’s viewpoint, since the dogs can’t understand what any human being is saying.  I get that — and if that was the goal, the film is effective! — but the result is that I felt separated from the Japanese characters in a way that I am not sure Mr. Anderson intended, and that increased my concerns about the film’s representation of Japan and Japanese people.

The film’s third strike was that, other than the boy Atari, most of the main Japanese characters in the film were dog-hating villains.  (Or if not villains, they’re at least not heroes.)  The most heroic human character after Atari is the young girl Tracy Walker (voiced by Greta Gerwig) — who isn’t actually Japanese at all!  She’s a foreign exchange student!  And so here we get very close to the problematic trope of a white character being the hero who saves the day for all the non-white people.  (Why is this character an American and not Japanese??  The only answer I could come up with is that they needed the audience to understand what this character was saying, and so to get around their native-language-only rule they had to make her American.  But that only reinforces the problematic effects of that self-imposed language restriction.)

None of these issues would be so problematic on their own, but taken together, they left me with some concerns.  I am by far not the only one who feels this way.  But let’s ignore the crazies on twitter and, instead, turn to the nuanced perspective of Justin Chang, who wrote a thoughtful analysis of Isle of Dogs for the Los Angeles Times.  As much as I loved so many aspects of Isle of Dogs, I find it hard to argue with Mr. Chang’s points.  This truly does make me sad, because there are so many aspects of Isle of Dogs that I found to be extraordinary!

I want to emphasize that, as I have already noted several times, I am truly not sure where I stand on these issues that I and others have raised about Isle of Dogs.  I have concerns, but I am not sure how much those concerns should impact my or others’ enjoyment or appreciation with this film.  But they’re there, and these are issues that I have to wrestle with.  I think these are important issues for all critical-thinkers to consider when viewing this film.  I believe that there is a range of opinions on this film that I can see having merit.  These are complicated issues.

I certainly think that Isle of Dogs is worth seeing.  This might still be a great movie, despite these issues.  Your mileage will vary.  Without a doubt, the artistry on display in every frame of this film’s extraordinary animation is worthy of enormous praise.  As for Mr. Anderson, I continue to be a huge fan.  Even if he has made some missteps here, I find his work and his approach to storytelling to be endlessly fascinating, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

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