It has been almost a decade since director Wes Anderson returned to the tedious world of stop-motion animation. In that time, he has made two widely successful movies, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, and has been nominated for more than a few Oscars. Now he is back with his latest film, Isle of Dogs, making his much-awaited return to stop-motion animation. Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s ninth film and it is just as aesthetically pleasing as those that came before. He has created a style that is uniquely his own, and his films would be very easy to pick out in a lineup. With his straight-on shots, smooth camera transitions, and overall rectilinear aesthetic, Anderson creates whimsical worlds that are often populated by eccentric characters, who come to life on screen; Isle of Dogs is no exception.
The film is set in a future Japan in the city of Megasaki. The city is governed by cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) who, after an outbreak of dog flu and snout-fever that he fears may spread to humans, orders that all the dogs in the city be sent across the sea to the bleak Trash Island. The Island’s name speaks for itself, since it is just that– an island of trash that also happens to be home to an abandoned nuclear power plant and a decrepit amusement park. It is undoubtedly the most symmetrical and visually pleasing waste dump out there, with its perfectly situated garbage cubes and glowing walls of glass bottles.
The first dog to be sent there is Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber), companion and guard dog of 12-year-old and ward to the mayor, Atari (Koyu Rankin). As the movie progresses it is shown that just about every dog from the city has been sent to the island, from purebred show dogs to scruffy strays. Brave Atari is not willing to live without his friend; he steals a small plane and sets out on a quest to the island to find Spots. Upon his arrival, his plane crashes and he meets the movie’s main scene-stealing canines, Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), King (Bob Balaban), and Chief (Bryan Cranston), who eventually end up helping him on his journey. The rest of the film follows Atari and his newfound pack as they travel all across the island in search of Spots, while the mayor’s men continually try to stop them and bring him back home. Over on the mainland, there’s a political war brewing between Kobayashi, and two brave scientists (Akira Ito and Yoko Ono, yes really, that Yoko Ono) working on a dog-flu cure, and a band of pro-dog teenagers, led by puffy haired foreign exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig).
It is undeniable that the best part of Anderson’s film is the dogs. This beaten down and abandoned alpha pack carries the heart of the film; the dogs are surprisingly witty, given all that has happened to them. Any scenes that don’t involve them feel like background noise. Anderson makes it easy to sympathize with the dogs who have clearly been through the ringer. Abused and seemingly forgotten by their masters, they have been whittled down to the bone by starvation, have messy and matted fur, and are covered in cuts and wounds received from having to tough it out with other dogs just for sacks of scraps. Every once in a while, little black fleas and ticks can even be seen weaving in and out of their fur. Despite all this, they remain a rather lighthearted bunch, reminiscing about their favorite meals during domesticated life, and longing for belly rubs from their masters. One of the most surprising things is that they still are devoted to the humans who essentially threw them away. There’s not a lot of resentment there, further proof that dogs really are man’s best friend.
Isle of Dogs is not without its problems though. First and foremost is its treatment of language. The film is set in Japan yet “all barks have been translated into English,” as pointed out at the beginning of the film. It is clear that Anderson wanted to avoid the use of subtitles, most likely so they didn’t distract from the complex visuals he and his team worked so hard to create. Nearly all of the humans speak solely Japanese, minus Tracy who speaks some throughout the film, but who mostly communicates in English; their speech is only translated part of the time by an interpreter voiced by Frances McDormand. The most frustrating part of this is that hardly any of Atari’s speech is translated. This is surely done because he is speaking to dogs half the time; Anderson is trying to emulate the fact that the dogs don’t understand him, so neither will the audience, excluding those moviegoers who are fluent in Japanese, of course. Perhaps this is why the dogs are more enjoyable to watch though. Stripping that level of understanding away from Atari specifically takes away from his characterization and leaves him feeling a little flat. His overarching love for and determination to rescue his dog keeps him relatable, and gives English speaking audiences a reason to stand with him throughout the duration of the film.
There is also the larger issue of traces of appropriation of Japanese culture. The fact that Tracy, the leader of the pro-dog movement and seemingly the only student to speak out about it until the end, is white and speaks English is cause for concern. It can be argued that she was made white because someone had to speak English besides the dogs; and if subtitles were not going to be used, then her storyline would not have made sense, given that the translator really only worked at large political rallies interpreting the mayor. She is also one of the film’s main heroines and it feels odd for that role to be taken by a white girl in a film set in Japan.
Anderson has also been accused of playing off of a very Western view of Japanese culture by including things like Sumo wrestlers and Taiko drums in the film. Many of the Japanese characters are also portrayed as villainous dog-haters who murder people with poisoned wasabi and need a blonde white girl to run in and knock some sense into them. Anderson himself has said that the movie could really be set anywhere, but he chose Japan because he wanted to make a movie set in one of his favorite cities. The fundamental plot of the story is relatively universal and the messages could have been conveyed in any culture, which makes the racial stereotyping all the more unnecessary.
At its core, Isle of Dogs is a beautifully constructed film about man’s oldest and dearest friend. It is clear that there was a lot of thought put into every frame, so it’s a shame that more thought wasn’t put into the portrayal of the Japanese characters. The dogs really do make the entire movie and save it from the cultural disaster it could have been. I could watch another whole movie of just the dogs having more adventures on Trash Island and beyond, which I think says something about Anderson’s stop-motion work and character writing. It’s hard not to admire the animation and the painstaking amount of work that goes into every scene when working with stop-motion. The film is truly at its best when the dogs are talking about rumors they heard among the trash piles, and are exploring the broken down world they now call home. Let’s hope that the real world never comes to a point when it has to say goodbye to its furry friends in this way, for I think I’d rather join my dog of Trash Island then let him suffer this fate alone.