Isle Of Dogs, 2018.
Directed By Wes Anderson.
Featuring the voice talents of Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Frances McDormand, Greta Gerwig, Scarlett Johansson, Yoko Ono, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Liev Schreiber, Courtney B. Vance, and Anjelica Huston.
Set in Japan, Isle of Dogs follows a boy’s odyssey in search of his lost dog.
As a striking example of pop-up book cinema, Isle Of Dogs is one savagely mature, pro-pupper exile story worth agreeable woofs (which it coincidentally has none of). Stop motion designs and model-mini Japan paints a meticulous Wes Anderson puppet performance (shadowbox theatrics, buckets of showmanship personality) even if plotting is tunnel-visioned. Don’t get me wrong – as trailers indicate, pooch lovers will find an animated nirvana that proves once and for all that man’s best friend is far better than man himself. It’s all just a bit slight beyond orchestrating an ode to the loyal doggos in our lives – aptly Anderson in every way, except for the whole “high school diorama” dive into Japanese culture.
Isle Of Dogs begins with a centuries-old war between man and creature. Rulers of Megasaki once fought against their pupper adversaries until a young hero came to his four-legged friends’ aid. This ushered in an age of obedience until current-day Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) successfully banishes canines to Trash Island – the exact garbage dump it sounds like. Dogs are deported by their masters or booted as strays, making Chief (Bryan Cranston) and Rex (Edward Norton) equals on Trash Island. Tribal warfare is a way of life until “The Little Pilot” crash lands – Kobayashi’s ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) who simply wants to reunite with his old guard dog Spots. Unable to communicate, with only his new pack as friends.
Immediate acknowledgment is that of good dogs playing focal characters while (Japanese) humans are pushed aside. Jeff Goldblum and Bill Murray mumble as canine characters who joke about “not understanding a word” of master speak, complete with English-speaking voices and humanly qualities (we’ll return to this). Warring breeds on Trash Island scrap over garbage feasts, housepets yearn for their comfortable beds next to space heaters and sneezes are plentiful. It may be gaggy, but if you love dogs like the title suggests, prepare to have your (chewed-up) slippers charmed off.
More impressive is the film’s visual splendor – every bit as extravagantly Anderson as The Grand Budapest Hotel or Fantastic Mr. Fox. Waxy figures gesture with stop-animation fluidity and dogs are hyper characterized down to fluffy coats of wavy fur. Grey wolf-like manes, curly-q sheepdog doodles, camera-ready poise – animal design is deeply personal and necessary to establish more than just “talking animal” shticks. From Megasaki’s robust archways to the mounds of compost on Trash Island, there’s so much intricate world-building at play. Isle Of Dogs feels like a massive arts and crafts undertaking that sells one wacky scenario better left for bedtime children’s books – sumo rings, science laboratories and hilltop mansions alike.
Here is the sticky problem about this Americanize view on Japanese culture (Kabuki, Kurosawa, etc.) – there’s no reason for continent transplantation. Japanese characters speak their native tongue in Anderson’s friend-finding epic, which means we’re only allowed to understand their dialogue when *American* Interpreter Nelson (Frances McDormand) translates overtop. A barrier is hoisted that only allows for accessible relationships with English-speaking dogs whose howls have been converted to understandable dialogue as a means of establishing importance. “You’re here for the pooches, now ignore those native humans because we can’t understand them…” – until foreign exchange student Tracy (voiced by Greta Gerwig) comes into focus? Her “She” Guevara act a rebellion in favor of dogs, the Cincinnati native immediately vaulted into central billing because of her language relation? It’s all such iffy politics given the lack of importance stressed on an entire Japanese population, even in a whimsical oddball fantasy.
Such a “problematic” take that feels so…unnecessary?
Why make a big deal about authenticity and casting when characters like Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) and Japan’s own “Tall Man” Major-Domo (Akira Takayama) are immediately drown out by Caucasian voices? Tapestry paintings recap a war between cat-loving scoundrels and free-roaming dogs, but even that’s narrated by Courtney B. Vance. I’m not saying it’s outright appropriation or overtly disrespectful, but Anderson’s decision establishes a hurdle in the form of avoidable cinematic jet-setting. There needed to be more thought put into location scouting beyond festive coloring and angry-faced stereotypes – that could have otherwise made sense throughout Atari’s maligned rescue mission.
As far as Anderson moonshots go, Isle Of Dogs puts smiles on faces but is missing signature flavors of subdued yet peculiar sincerity. Characters are unexcitable and gags extremely gimmick-first – pets who suffer from made-up conditions as “Dog Flu” or “Snout Fever.” Scarlett Johansson’s Nutmeg scores laughs as Chief imagines her chainsaw-juggling tricks and Oracle (Tilda Swinton) is a standout with her “future predictions,” but it’s all so unconventionally inconsequential. Where Anderson is usually able to string a gonzo plot chase in the form of dominos continually toppling, Atari’s quest home is missing that same humorous quickfire pace. His puppy-powered caper more for show, mechanical in its absurdity (beyond robot attack canines).
Without argument, Isle Of Dogs is imagination without a leash. A larger-than-life adventure that never feels as big as its scope – albeit delightful, adorable and willing to please. Some will cry foul at blatant whitewashing that literally talks over Japanese representation, while others won’t bat an eye because googly-eyed pug faces can talk. You’ll find the appropriate amount of outrage you seek, but even ignoring Wes Anderson’s global marginalization, Isle Of Dogs is a cutesy escape from reality that’s just fine enough and not much more – somehow proving a singular love for dogs isn’t a 5-star slam dunk.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★★ / Movie: ★★★