Review: ‘ISLE OF DOGS’ Has a Few Good Tricks, and Lingering Questions

Groundbreaking animation and an ace voice cast elevate an otherwise minor (and culturally murky) addition to Wes Anderson’s catalog.

NUTMEG: Will you help him, the little pilot?

CHIEF: Why should I?

NUTMEG: Because he’s a 12-year-old boy. Dogs love those.

I’m not quite sure where to begin with Isle of Dogs, because I’m a couple of weeks behind the critical conversation that has surrounded it: not about the film’s actual quality (“good”), but about its cultural sensitivity (“uhh”).

I’ll say this, I suppose: I enjoyed it. It’s cleverly executed, and the animation is frequently breathtaking in the emotions Wes Anderson’s crack team, led by Kubo and Corpse Bride vet Jason Stalman, elicit from these puppets of silicone and metal. There are closeups of dogs where the performances are as nuanced as any Andy Serkis motion-capture or even most live-action films. It’s an astonishing level of craft, thousands of hours in the making, and I found stretches of the film utterly mesmerizing.

The rest of the time, however, I was left uncomfortably aware of Asian-Americans’ more mixed response to the film, which is a pastiche of familiar and specific Japanese elements (sumo! sushi! taiko drums!), presented in Anderson’s trademark deadpan style. Vulture’s Emily Yoshida wrote a fascinating piece on the reaction from Japanese speakers, whose language is either translated aloud by Frances McDormand’s interpreter character or not at all, leaving audiences to draw meaning from tone and body language. Buzzfeed’s Alison Willmore took a well-researched deep dive on Hollywood’s inglorious tradition of “Orientalism,” and how Dogs unwittingly flirts with it. And Justin Chang put it bluntly for the Los Angeles Times: “Does this white American filmmaker’s highly selective, idiosyncratic rendering of an East Asian society constitute a sincere act of homage, or a clueless failure of sensitivity?”

Chang would later clarify on Twitter that he “wasn’t offended, nor was I looking to be,” but the questions he and others have asked are still important, especially for a white guy like me who doesn’t always think to consider them. I love Wes Anderson films, especially his more mature work post-Life Aquatic. His first crack at animation, 2009’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, is one of the best of its kind. The Grand Budapest Hotel was one of the top two or three films of 2014. He’s got a track record of success, even if the whimsical style occasionally overwhelms the substance, but Isle of Dogs isn’t the first time he’s faced this kind of criticism, either (2007’s The Darjeeling Limited is often a lazy tourist’s version of India). As celebrated as the director has been, his blind spots are also pretty obvious, and the backlash to the backlash — led by those who resent having the conversation at all — has burned even hotter, and crueler.

Putting all of that aside, just for a moment, Isle of Dogs is nevertheless an admirable technical achievement. Set in the near-future dystopic city of Megasaki, a plague of “dog flu” has led corrupt mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), to banish all household canines to “Trash Island,” where they will likely die in misery. The first to go is Spots (Liev Schreiber), beloved pet and “bodyguard” of Kobayashi’s ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin). Atari steals a plane and crash-lands on the island, where he is aided in his search for Spots by a ragged pack voiced in American English by Anderson regulars Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Jeff Goldblum. A new addition to the company is Bryan Cranston, who plays the snarling “Chief,” a lifelong stray who has no desire to return to the “Age of Obedience” his Good Boy packmates long for.

Dog lovers will have plenty to chew on. These sequences are full of heart, and find a strange beauty in Trash Island’s desolation: haunting black-sand beaches, sluiceways and abandoned theme parks, wide shots of silhouettes on the horizon accompanied by a famous Fumio Hayasaka melody. The film’s lynchpin isn’t Atari’s pairing with Spots, but with Chief, whose emotional journey is predictable but nonetheless effective thanks to Cranston’s all-in performance and the remarkably expressive animation. Anderson’s signature diorama-like direction is best-suited for this medium, where he has total control of every symmetrical frame and can pack in every visual gag he can imagine. Vocal cameos from F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton (as a goggle-eyed pug who can “predict the future” because she understands television), and more generate big laughs.

On the mainland, however, things aren’t quite so rosy. Mayor Kobayashi goes to violent lengths to shut down research into a cure for the dog flu and suppress any resistance to his autocracy. That resistance, unfortunately, comes primarily in the form of foreign-exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), a bubble gum-blowing, cork-boarding activist who fulfills every “white savior” trope in stirring her student group to action. Which sucks, frankly. Dogs is fortuitously timed in its depiction of high schoolers demonstrating for change, but why does it have to be this frizzy-haired white girl at the front? Why is it Tracy who smacks around scientist Yoko-ono (played by, you guessed it, Yoko Ono) to get her to pull herself together? If Anderson was so committed to the gimmick of keeping Japanese characters untranslated that he needed an American to communicate these story beats, it’s the gimmick that’s bad, and has left many viewers wondering how serious he really was about telling a Japanese story.

So where’s the line between homage and insensitivity? Our own Tyler Remmert wrestled with this in his review of 2016’s Kubo and the Two Strings, a film that, while stunningly animated, never needed to be set in Japan at all. The same, admittedly, could be said of Dogs. “The movie is a fantasy, and I would never suggest that this is an accurate depiction of any particular Japan,” the director told Entertainment Weekly. For Anderson, it’s a love letter to the films of Akira Kurosawa (by featuring both subtle and obvious nods to Seven Samurai and many more) and Hayao Miyakazi. I expect co-writers Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola* would agree. They even brought in a fourth writer, Kunichi Nomura, to help with authenticity, which is a better effort than we’re used to seeing. No one is suggesting that only native directors can make films about a particular country — we’d lose a staggering amount of art that way — but if you’re going to do it, you have to do it thoughtfully.

*Roman’s sister Sofia stepped in the same muck 15 years ago with Lost in Translation. Not sure if anyone learned from that.

Why does it matter, though, if the film’s Japanese shorthand is only unintentionally disrespectful, and then only to some viewers? I don’t think I’m the right person to answer that question. I would simply say to take that perspective seriously, and educate yourself, but it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the film. Both of my kids did. Now my 7-year-old daughter is suddenly interested in Japan, and I did my best to answer her barrage of questions, trying to clarify what’s real and what’s exaggerated. But like Anderson, I feel, she only loves Japan as an idea, not necessarily as a real place with real people. It’s a paradigm she’ll hopefully grow out of as she gets older, as long as she keeps her curious nature. From gifted storytellers like Anderson, however, we should expect better.

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