Nuance is a good thing. That might seem like a bizarre sentiment to post here on the internet, where considered discourse goes to die. Wait, that’s not really fair. You can find plenty of nuance on the internet. It’s just usually drowned out by clickbait headlines and the outrage machine, which only has one setting: full volume. And, of course, let us not forget about the comments section.
Taking a contemplative and nuanced approach to what I write about movies is one of my most important goals. It’s right behind setting down my honest emotional and intellectual reaction to each movie, as well as putting the movies in the context of film history. Wes Anderson’s new film, Isle of Dogs, has made me think hard about being nuanced, especially when it comes to cultural appropriation. It’s what I’ll spend most of this review covering, because it was at the forefront of my mind while I was watching the movie.
Certain aspects of Isle of Dogs are culturally insensitive at best, and I want to point them out. A white man has decided to make a movie using the Japanese people and culture as his play thing. This is also a white savior story. Anderson has cleverly tried to side step this criticism by making dogs (and animated ones at that) the saviors instead of humans. The inarguable heroes of the movie, the dogs are all voiced by white men or white women. In fact, one of the running jokes of the movie for Anderson’s presumed white, English-speaking audiences is that we get no subtitles for what the Japanese characters say. We either have to use context to guess at their words or rely on a white interpreter (voiced by Frances McDormand) for the speeches within the story that are broadcast on TV.
The most obvious criticism I can make against Anderson’s movie is also the one that shines the brightest spotlight on the entitlement of white artists. Isle of Dogs could have been set anywhere. Anderson’s desire to play with the tropes and iconography of Japanese culture and cinema was seemingly too overpowering for him. He couldn’t resist borrowing an entire culture for his own artistic vision.
The story happens “20 years in the future,” in the fictional city of Megasaki City. A dog flu epidemic has ravaged the canine population. The dictatorial mayor, Kobayashi, decrees that all dogs be sent to Trash Island so the virus doesn’t spread to the human population. A local scientist, Professor Watanabe, is close to finding a cure, but there is a historical reason for Kobayashi’s desire to banish the dogs. The Kobayashi dynasty, it seems, has always been partial to felines. This ancient history is covered in a prologue sequence, and it involves – because how can it not – a samurai warrior.
In the interest of fairness, I want to mention that Anderson did take certain steps to mitigate his appropriation. He worked closely with Kunichi Nomura (who voices Mayor Kobayashi) on the story, and Nomura was an advisor for any questions Anderson had about Japanese culture. Also, in direct opposition to white actors voicing all of the dogs, all Japanese characters are voiced by Japanese actors (the one exception is a Koyu Rankin, a Canadian whose mother is Japanese). I should also note, although I will be the first to admit that my opinion on this is next to worthless, that Anderson doesn’t treat Japanese people or culture either carelessly or with disrespect. Writer Emily Yoshida wrote a fantastic piece for Vulture that addresses this.
The emotional heart of Isle of Dogs, the thing around which the director/co-writer puts all this unfortunate, culturally appropriated window-dressing, is actually quite sweet. Wes Anderson is known as a filmmaker who builds quirky, idiosyncratic worlds and characters. He then sets those characters loose in poignant, tender stories. Isle of Dogs is no different. Anderson is exploring loyalty and love through the animal that human beings have most come to identify with those traits – our beloved dogs. There’s also sacrifice, and that trait pops up in, and to the surprise of, the toughest dog in the movie, the stray who calls himself Chief.
As a show of fairness regarding the law banishing dogs in Megasaki City to Trash Island, Mayor Kobayashi decrees that his own dog, Spots, should be the first to go. Or rather, it’s the dog of Kobayashi’s orphaned nephew, Atari, whom the mayor has taken in as his ward. Atari becomes furious, steals a single passenger plane, and flies to Trash Island to rescue Spots. He meets Chief and a band of misfit dogs: Rex, King, Boss, and Duke. These dogs aren’t like Chief, who has always scrounged for food to survive. They remember having homes and loving masters. They don’t convince Chief to help Atari so much as they reluctantly drag him along in their adventure.
This is Anderson’s second fully animated feature film and, like his 2009 movie Fantastic Mr. Fox, he uses stop-motion animation to glorious effect. Wes Anderson movies are famous for the amount of control he exerts over every decision and his laser-like focus on each minute detail that shows up on screen. It makes perfect sense, then, that he would be drawn to a medium in which he can fine tune what’s happening in every single frame. All the visual flourishes – each dog hair that ripples in the wind, the many shots of beautiful symmetry, the comedic whip-pans and other exaggerated camera movements – are sheer cinematic bliss.
One particularly transcendental moment comes when the dogs start a fight with soldiers who are tasked with bringing Atari back home. The dogs race towards their prey. The instant they clash with the soldiers, a giant cloud of dust appears (only in this stop-motion world, it looks more like bits of white yarn swirling on the screen), totally obscuring the fight. It’s a moment straight out of a Buster Keaton comedy by way of Rankin/Bass. The movie is filled with these kinds of delightful, inventive moments.
The more questionable cultural decisions Anderson made for Isle of Dogs notwithstanding, slipping into the worlds he creates is comforting. This film doesn’t match the melancholy or poignancy of his 2014 picture, The Grand Budapest Hotel, but it does match that movie’s madcap comedy. Anderson is an oft-imitated but singular voice in American filmmaking. Despite their flaws, each of his movies feels like a treasure.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- Despite the reservations I have about the movie's setting, Isle of Dogs is a sweet story about the loyalty and love that dogs give us, even when we don't deserve it. The beauty of the stop-motion animation – an art form that continues to prove how vital it is, even in the face of computer animation – is a wonder to behold.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- At the risk of beating a dead horse, this cultural appropriation issue made me wrestle with older movies that I grew up loving, but that are guilty of the same thing. Big Trouble in Little China came instantly to my mind as I left the theater after seeing Isle of Dogs. I can offer no defense for my love of that movie, other than pure nostalgia.
- If you are familiar with cinema history at all, you will recognize a few of the character names here: Kobayashi and Watanabe specifically. Can we all agree that screenwriters paying homage to their favorite filmmakers by naming their characters after them is played out? One name, however, sticks out because it's not a traditional name for Japanese people. I'm assuming the character Atari is an homage to the game console. Nina Li Coomes wrote this excellent piece for The Atlantic that addresses that and many other things about the movie.
- The emotional connections Anderson creates between his human characters here doesn't feel as strong as in his past movies. There is an American exchange student named Tracy Walker who is the leader of the human resistance to rescue the dogs from Trash Island. She falls for Atari when she learns about his mission. There isn't much to this subplot, and Tracy is probably the weakest thing about the movie. Her conspiracy theorizing about why the dogs are banished in the first place feels uninspired.
- The same goes for the romantic subplots involving some of the canines. Scarlett Johansson plays Nutmeg, a love interest for Chief. That storyline also feels rote, and lacks the romantic flair that's typical in Anderson's work.
- Courtney B. Vance can, and should, narrate every movie. His voice is pure velvet.
- I'm partial to pugs, so Oracle (voiced by Tilda Swinton, no less) brought me much joy.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- This was a late afternoon screening, and it was only about half full. It was a pleasant and quiet crowd.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Most people know John Krasinski as the lovable Jim Halpert from the U.S. version of the sitcom The Office. Since that show ended, Krasinski has been transforming himself into a director, and his biggest effort yet is hitting the screens. He directed, co-wrote, and stars in A Quiet Place, a horror movie set in a near future where blind monsters roam the landscape. The only way to stay safe is to remain absolutely silent.