REVIEW: Isle of Dogs

Wes Anderson’s latest stop-motion confection is as meticulously constructed and dryly sweet as his previous filmography, even with the extremely complicated questions it raises about appropriation and race.

By now, the Wes Anderson brand is firmly established to the point where even parodying him is old hat. Everyone knows about his symmetrical framing, uproariously deadpan protagonists, and meticulous construction of heightened, storybook worlds that function more like dollhouses than naturalistic worlds – it’s passé to even joke about them, because we’ve all been so aware of them for so long that, at this point, you’re either on board with his extreme formalism or you’re not.

Anderson’s storybook style seems perfect for children’s movies, which is why 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and his latest, Isle of Dogs, stand out so much – he shines in the detail-oriented aesthetic of stop motion animation, his particular quirks melding perfectly with that sense of heightened reality. Isle of Dogs is as Wes Anderson a movie as there’s ever been, for both good (it’s exquisitely crafted) and ill (it just might be cultural appropriation?).

Set in a near future Japan, the threat of a dog flu (and its accompanying diseases, like “snout fever”) pushes the dog-hating mayor of Megasaki City, Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura, the one Japanese person involved in the crafting of the story) to exile all dogs in the city to nearby Trash Island, where they will be left to die among the rest of the city’s refuse. Six months later, Kobayashi’s young ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) crashes his plane on the island; luckily, he’s rescued by a pack of five mangy dogs who’ve banded together for survival (voiced by Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Bryan Cranston).

Together, they decide to help Atari find his lost guard dog Spots (Live Schreiber), whom he’s come to the island to rescue. Meanwhile, a group of student radicals led by an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) seek to take down Kobayashi’s corrupt regime and bring the dogs back.

From its opening frames, Anderson’s stylistic signposts are everywhere to be found. Shots are meticulously framed along rigid lines of sight, characters move with painterly precision and speak with twee affect (Goldblum’s dog Duke seems to converse entirely in half-heard rumor). In many ways, Isle of Dogs sees Anderson playing the hits: existing regional score drops from Darjeeling Limited, the stop motion animation style of Fantastic Mr. Fox, the lovesick-kid main plot of Moonrise Kingdom, the authoritative, husky-voiced narrator from Royal Tenenbaums (here, it’s Courtney B. Vance in place of Baldwin). And yet it all coalesces into something slightly new – he’s diving into familiar territory here, but switches it up just enough to keep things interesting.

Which brings us to the film’s Japanese setting, which is the film’s greatest boon and greatest curse. For all his genius, Anderson’s films are very white, which can lead to some trouble when he dabbles in countries and cultures outside of that specific radius. Darjeeling Limited has its defenders (myself included), but it’s hard to reconcile his clear love for the films of Satyajit Ray with his movie about three brothers engaging in cultural tourism to make themselves feel better. Those concerns arise once again in Isle of Dogs, a movie set in Japan but which has a largely English language cast, and whose Japanese characters and actors are firmly in supporting roles.

Granted, there are stylistic devices that attempt to excuse this: the American actors mostly play the dogs, whose “barks have been translated to English,” for instance. As much as it all works within the context of the film, it’s hard to be too angry with Asian and Asian-American critics who feel like Anderson is playing in someone else’s sandbox, in other terms. It’s a very complicated conversation that involves a lot of factors that exist outside the film itself, and one that a white male film critic like myself can’t speak to with any real authority. The issues in question weren’t a problem for this reviewer, but that does not diminish the authenticity of the claims put forth by others.

Taking this film at face value, within its own context, it’s still a wonderful achievement in Anderson’s idiosyncratic style and sense of humor. Like the best of his films, there’s a big, beating heart at the center of Isle of Dogs, this time around the almost spiritual connection that exists between mankind and the animals they love. “Whatever happened to man’s best friend?” asks Tracy Walker, Gerwig’s American exchange student (and, further muddying the waters of appropriation, more proactive than many of the Japanese characters around her). It’s a question that expands beyond the specific ‘boy and his dog’ story that underpins Isle of Dogs’ A-plot into a larger political scenario that touches on issues of immigration, authoritarianism, and more.

For a movie taking place in Japan, Isle of Dogs certainly seems concerned with issues faced by Americans in 2018. Anderson’s confections tend to feel apolitical by virtue of the fact that they seem to take place in a different universe than our own, but these issues hit extremely close to home for a contemporary audience. Just like with man’s best friend, Anderson calls on us to love and celebrate our neighbors, even if they can be more easily classified as ‘other’ and have all kinds of nasty stigmas placed on them. Here, they just happen to be cute, quirky, mangy pups, which drives the need for empathy even further.

As a film, Isle of Dogs may well be one of Anderson’s best – it’s impeccably crafted as always, and he finds new methods of visual invention that still fit organically with his house style.

The larger cultural conversation around the film is another story: in a society, or a film industry, where Asians and Asian-Americans have a more equal voice in how their story is told than they have now, well-intentioned movies this might be more easily let off the hook. Right now, though, at least this interesting, compelling movie is at the center of larger discussions about appropriation and the inequalities the industry faces.

Personally? I think there’s room to both have the conversation and enjoy the film. There’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Isle of Dogs hits Chicago theaters March 28th. 

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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