Listen, I don’t want to harsh anyone’s buzz, and I love Wes Anderson and it’s great seeing people be excited by his work, but I’m having a hard time getting on the Isle of Dogs train. Believe you me, I want to be on it. I love dogs. I love stop motion animation. I love Fantastic Mr. Fox! And yet halfway through ISLE OF DOGS I got that sinking feeling I get when a movie isn’t working in a way that I need the movie to work, and that sinking feeling was bolstered by a growing sense that ISLE OF DOGS, beyond its other problems, is racially… how do I put this?… weird.
Roll back in time. When the first ISLE OF DOGS trailer premiered I all but put a reminder in my calendar: this movie will ignite cultural appropriation arguments and complaints. I have a complicated relationship with cultural appropriation (for one thing, I’m white. For another, I think all culture should be appropriated by all people back and forth. I love seeing the weird ways that the Japanese, for instance, take and work with American culture. It’s one interconnected globe and we should all put on each others’ clothes, imo), but I also understand the positions of people who disagree with me. It’s generally not an argument I think worth me getting into (I don’t bring enough to the table to make my voice valuable), although that doesn’t stop me from standing on the sidelines and occasionally rolling my eyes when someone writes a piece about whether or not their love of burritos is woke.
Anyway, all of that is to establish the simple fact that I walked into ISLE OF DOGS aware that the film’s Japanese setting could be complicated for some people but ALSO aware that I don’t always find those arguments convincing. But I also walked in aware of my own privilege and cultural blind spots, so I intended to lead this review off with a link to an Asian-American writer discussing their feelings about ISLE OF DOGS’s version of Japan. And, I mean, I still can. Read Justin Chang talking about it. But at the same time… holy shit, this movie is, as the children say, problematic. And so now I must address this stuff with my own words, because this problematic nature just kept slapping me in the face for the film’s whole runtime.
There’s no reason for Isle of Dogs to be set in Japan. That’s like warning sign number one – the exotic location is not integral to the story or the themes. It’s simply set dressing, and while it’s gorgeous set dressing (as is all the set dressing in this movie), it has no bearing on the film. This movie could have been set off the coast of New Jersey and the only changes that would have been necessary would have been the removal of translator characters (who, by the way, serve only the purpose of keeping us eternally distanced from the Japanese characters).
It isn’t that Isle of Dogs is particularly racist against the Japanese – there’s no Yellow Peril stuff (although I imagine some will take offense at Major-Domo’s looks, but he’s an animated villain; beyond skin tone I think he could have looked the same as a white character, more or less) – although it is stereotypical. The racial problem with the movie is way subtler than that. And it’s a problem whose inclusion is, frankly, stupid and pointless. Anderson and his collaborators make one of the heroes a white exchange student.
Before you tell me it’s racist to be mad that there’s a white person in the movie, let me explain further. See, this white exchange student has an Afro. She does the black power salute (which, yes, means more than black power, but with that big ass Afro on her head it’s hard NOT to see it that way). That’s all weird, but where it gets fucked up is that this white girl is the character who sees through a Japanese conspiracy against dogs, roots out centuries of Japanese corruption and mobilizes her fellow students (who are mostly depicted as obedient rule followers) to take action.
Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got ourselves a White Savior.
Again, I don’t know why she’s in this movie, or why this is her role. If there’s a thematic reason it’s opaque to me; if there’s a narrative reason why this part couldn’t have been filled with a Japanese character (if we’re gonna definitely make this movie Japanese for no reason) it’s unclear. The main argument I could guess at is that the movie opens with a title card saying all dialogue will be spoken in the character’s native tongue, which means Anderson included a white girl so she could speak English to us. But maybe the easier solution would have been to not put that restriction on the movie in the first place. Like, pull a Hunt for Red October and have characters start speaking Japanese but transition to English for the comfort of the American audience. I could get behind that.
Then there’s the way the script approaches place and character names; they’re all cutesy, stuff on the level of a 4th grader who never met a Japanese person coming up with Japanese name. When we hear about Mount Toho it’s fun, but by the time we’re at the Sapporo River you just want to pull Anderson aside and tell him to stop it. It’s not that this stuff is offensive, per se – I have seen enough Japanese depictions of America and Americans to understand this nonsense goes both ways – but that it’s so lazy and trite.
The bad news is that this isn’t the only way the script fails the movie. Isle of Dogs has such a simple, wonderful concept – all dogs are banished to Trash Island, and one boy risks his life to travel there and rescue his faithful good boy. That’s a whole movie, I think. But ISLE OF DOGS complicates it all with a conspiracy theory and fake Japanese politics; the movie keeps leaving Trash Island to make us deal with imprisoned scientists and plucky girl reporters (why aren’t any of the main dogs female? Like, make Greta Gerwig one of the main dogs instead of the plucky reporter). Maybe that stuff will thrill you; I found it to be a stumbling block to the film’s pace.
What’s more, it takes away screen time from the dogs. I look at the poster for Isle of Dogs and I think I’m getting a movie that’s almost all dogs, but instead I got a movie with A LOT of people. Way more than I wanted. And the main dogs are great, voiced by great actors, which makes it all the more astonishing when they simply disappear from the film at the climax. That, to me, is the sign of a truly bad script – we spend all this time up front with Ed Norton and Bob Balaban and Jeff Goldblum as dogs and then when the movie reaches its big ending they have basically nothing to do. Not that they had anything to do for the rest of the movie, technically – this is really a story about Atari, looking for his dog, Spots, the dog for whom he searches and Chief, the stray who learns that maybe he wants to be… subjugated*? – but at least they had a presence.
Isle of Dogs sails totally on its aesthetic. The stop motion animation is endlessly charming (I will never get enough of cotton puffs as clouds of smoke), and the character designs are great. The dogs are all wonderful, and I want to own plush dolls of most of them. Even Trash Island, which is an island full of trash, has an interesting vibrancy and texture that makes it fascinating. Wes Anderson can’t help but perfectly set design a place filled with maggots and rotting garbage. I could watch this movie again and again, because it is visually inventive and engaging. Maybe I would turn the sound off? (Although if I did I would lose Alexandre Desplat’s pounding score) If I did I wouldn’t be missing much – just as the bizarrely American dogs can’t understand what Atari is saying, I’m not sure I understand what Anderson is saying. By the time a bad guy has a change of heart at the end of the film I’m not sure even HE knows what he’s saying, because that ending is perfunctory and meaningless.
I didn’t find Isle of DogsS as objectionable as Darjeeling Limited, which also had lots of weird racial problems, but I think that’s just because I like dogs so damn much. I found all of the dog hijinks – and there’s plenty – to be transportively cute. So it’s not the worst Wes Anderson movie, but it’s not in the top half. Again, the wonder of the animation truly carries this film farther than it should get, but I wish the script was stronger and perhaps more focused (I know, focus isn’t really a Wes Anderson thing lately). I do love dogs, but I don’t love Isle of Dogs.
* More weird race shit: Chief, played by Bryan Cranston, is the only black dog in the pack. He’s different from the rest because he’s streetwise and violent. But later, when he accepts the love of Atari he gets a bath and becomes… white. Wes. Wes. What the fuck, my man.