F. Murray Abraham
1 Hr., 41 Mins.
Isle of Dogs March 29, 2018
sle of Dogs (2018) is a triumph of the imagination. Like every movie its ever-synthesizing co-writer and director, Wes Anderson, has made, it is resplendent with rich, assiduously crafted visuals and carefully cultivated nods to the filmmakers who inspired him. His passion is tangible; his meticulous craftsmanship is admirable.
But the precocious moviemaker has often left me cold. With the exception of 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which were wondrous and inviting, I see Anderson’s filmography as
a bacchanalia of rigid, vaguely pontifical hipster posturing with moments of fleeting greatness. While consistently proving himself a master aesthete, he’s regularly chosen his artistic interests over meaningful, multidimensional stories. And two excellent movies and a plethora of style-over-substance epitomizing ones do not a solid filmography make.
For his latest movie, Isle of Dogs, Anderson has returned to the stop-motion antics first introduced in Fantastic Mr. Fox. And it is his most stylistically ambitious feature to date: in it, we are thrust into a dystopian, near-future Japan which recalls the dreamworlds thought up by Hayao Miyazaki and Rankin/Bass. Everything is obviously handmade – down to each grungy strand of fur on the bodies of its titular mutts – and that makes its lush visuals all the more impressive to soak in.
But Anderson is also treading dangerous waters. Because he has reimagined Japan in an ahistorical and pointedly exoticized way, and because he has made the decision not to subtitle the film’s Japanese characters as a stylistic choice, he has expectedly been criticized for being racially insensitive and reducing Japanese culture to eye candy and an amalgam of stereotypes.
“It’s in Anderson’s handling of the story’s humans that his sensitivity falters, and the weakness for racial stereotyping that has sometimes marred his work,” the Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang wrote in his much-discussed review last week. Rolling Stone recently published the feature “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Isle of Dogs?,” in which the film writer David Fear grapples with the film’s fetishistic Japanophilia. Staff writers at The Ringer participated in a post-viewing discussion in which many questioned – and even mocked – Anderson’s stereotyping.
I was overcome with many of the same conflicting feelings that these writers experienced while watching Isle of Dogs. I admired its construction and was often moved by its story, and did find myself immersed in this luxuriant, fictionalized otherworld in which I wouldn’t mind getting lost. But I was frustrated, too. Anderson will pay “homage” to the films of Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa, comprehensively other the nation from which they originate, and still have the audacity to write stereotypical Japanese characters and render their words insignificant. (In addition to markedly doing away with subtitles for non-English speakers, these characters are usually dubbed over by a gratuitous character voiced by Frances McDormand.) It’s excruciating and wrongheaded – you cannot borrow so heavily from another culture but do much of that borrowing one-dimensionally and near-sightedly.
Anderson’s ignorance undercuts what he is purposely trying to do: create a heartwarming, boy-and-his-dog story à la My Dog Skip (2000) and a timely political allegory in which ardor and activism can lead to change. (Though only the former is executed effectively.)
In the film, which we’re told takes place in a not-so-distant future, all dogs have been banished from Japan, forced to live on the shores of Trash Island. A mysterious, deadly flu has infected the species out of the blue, and the central Megasaki City’s new authoritarian mayor (Kunichi Nomura) figures it best that the animal be essentially rendered obsolete. Time and time again, helpless canines are hastily dropped off at the isle in their cages, their doors not even unlocked. In the six months since the mayor’s ban, dogs have had to learn to fend for themselves – and how to survive together without participating in a dicey survival-of-the-fittest type battle.
Isle of Dogs is particularly interested in a group of pooches who have, by all means, learned how to persist with little. Unofficially led by the judicious, formerly stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), the band includes four other pups (voiced by the murderer’s row of Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum) who more or less consider themselves a democracy.
Their lives are thrown into a tizzy when the mayor’s nephew, the temerous Atari (Koyu Rankin), manages to make his way onto the island. (Make that crash lands – he steals a plane.) He’s looking for Spots (Liev Schreiber), his greatest animal pal and the first furball to be dropped off at Trash Island. His intentions tear-stained, the focal gang can’t help themselves from feeling for the boy, deciding to help him even if answers aren’t so obvious.
Back in Japan, the mayor’s utmost rival, the science professor Watanabe (Akira Ito), tries developing an antidote for the disease that’s supposedly making the dogs so sick, while the foreign exchange student cum white savior Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) starts investigating what she thinks is a conspiracy masterminded by the mayor and his minions.
For all its intrigue, Isle of Dogs is nonetheless a pretty streamlined adventure exercise, recalling the intrepid spirit of Anderson’s 2007 project The Darjeeling Limited. The intermingling storylines, for the most part, fuse together cohesively, and are pluckily told. All the Trash Island dramas are especially amusing – when we’re there for a long period of time, we almost forget about how much the overarching movie can infuriate. The voice actors are superb; the atmosphere is matchless.
But this movie, even if it is beautifully designed and even if it does have certain sections that inspire laughs and maybe tears, is far too tone deaf and inconsiderate to be deemed a success. Anderson could have easily made a film with this concept without further marginalizing a culture. C+
This review also appeared in The Daily.