After eight films, Wes Anderson has a brand. There’s a look to a Wes Anderson film, a feeling they evoke. Wes Anderson films are love letters to cinema, encapsulating the unique way in which a film can reach through the screen and right into our hearts. This isn’t to suggest that if you hate Wes Anderson films then you must hate movies, or somehow don’t understand them. But Wes Anderson loves movies and it’s evident in every film he makes. It’s clear in his attention to detail, the homages he weaves in, and how he uses the techniques of filmmaking to make his audience feel something.
In this respect, Isle of Dogs is peak Wes Anderson. The attention to detail is incredible, the animation is stunning, the voice work from several of Anderson’s frequent collaborators is perfect, the story is witty but also heartbreaking, and the influence of more prolific filmmakers is hard to miss. Where Isle of Dogs misses the mark, however, is in Anderson and his team poorly executed use of Japanese people, language, and culture. And it’s unfortunate, because what is an otherwise charming and beautiful film is now sullied by these decisions.
Isle of Dogs is set in a future, dystopian Japan in the fictional Megasaki City. Dog flu has broken out and in reaction, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) decrees that all dogs will be quarantined on Trash Island. There are scientists who claim they can and will find a cure for the dog flu, but Kobayashi – who has strong anti-dog views due to his involvement in an authoritarian, pro-cat secret society – stokes the people’s fears that the flu could mutate and spread to humans. As a sign of his commitment, the first dog dispatched to Trash Island is the dog and bodyguard of the mayor’s own ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin).
Months pass and in the wake of the Mayor’s decision, a movement to save Megasaki City’s dogs – led by foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) – grows in size and support. Meanwhile, Atari takes matters in to his own hands, steals a plane and flies to Trash Island to save his dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). He crashes but is rescued by a pack of alpha dogs: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldbum), and Chief (Bryan Cranston). Together, they set out to reunite Atari and Spots, and just maybe, save all of the dogs of Trash Island.
It’s obvious why Anderson chose to center this heartfelt tale on a boy and his dog. The love shared between a human and their pet is so pure and good it’s impossible to root against. It’s also a relationship that, by its very nature, will have a sad ending when it comes time to say goodbye. Again, this is peak Wes Anderson and the story of a boy and his dog – and specifically, a boy in search of his dog – is the perfect structure on which Anderson builds his movie. The premise serves as a solid foundation, but it’s in his framing of the story from the dogs’ perspective that makes Isle of Dogs both an engaging tale and a problematic one.
The dogs of Isle of Dogs are the real stars here. The puppets are incredible, with finely detailed features that allow them to be very emotive. Isle of Dogs reunites Anderson with his Fantastic Mr. Fox cinematographer, Tristan Oliver (Curse of the Were-Rabbit, ParaNorman), and they’re partnership again work wonders in bringing to life these stop-motion characters. (The way their fur moves in the breeze, it’s incredible!) But most of all, what shines through is the vocal performances of the cast – Bryan Cranston, especially. His Chief is very much the beating heart of the film, and he – along with Liev Schrieber’s Spots – are the two dogs at the center of this story. The rest of the pack are as delightful as we’ve come to expect of Anderson’s frequent collaborators, with the standouts being Norton’s diplomatic Rex and Goldblum’s gossipy Duke.
The dogs are a joy, but the people… this where Isle of Dogs falls off the rails. The decision to have the dogs speak in English (the films states their barks have been translated as such) and the people speak in Japanese without English subtitles only works to alienate the Japanese characters from what is a predominately English-speaking audience. There are times when the Japanese dialogue is translated through an on screen translator (voiced by Frances McDormand) but even this robs these characters of their own voice, further distancing them from the audience. And the speech is just one issue. Anderson is clearly a fan of Japanese art, music, and movies and he brings his keen attention to detail to every use of Japanese culture in the film. But nothing about Isle of Dogs is particularly Japanese (this movie could have set in practically any major city, fictional or not) so all of these flourishes of Japanese culture are just that – flourishes, window dressing, embellishments with no bearing on the film beyond giving it its look.
The biggest grievance, however, is the the character of Tracy Walker. Greta Gerwig gives a plucky performance as the leader of the student protest, but it’s impossible to view Walker as anything but a “white savior” character. She’s an exchange student from Ohio, she speaks English, and it’s left to her to rally the other Japanese students in to action. It’s pretty awful. It’s also so glaringly obvious that Anderson and his team were most likely just willfully ignorant of how this would come across. Had the Japanese-speaking character been subtitled, if the story in anyway hinged on being set in Japan, or had the student protest been led by any of the Japanese students, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of an issue around the film’s use of Japanese culture. But as it stands, it’s a problem.
Isle of Dogs is as funny, charming, and uplifting as any of Wes Anderson’s films. The relationship between Atari and Spots, and later Atari and Chief form the film’s emotional backbone. For anyone who’s ever loved a pet, it’s sure to tug at the heart and make the eyes a little watery. Isle of Dogs is also just beautiful to look at and the intricacy is astounding. It’s a shame, then, that the film as whole cannot be as celebrated. There’s a real disconnect between the journey of the dogs on Trash Island and the humans in Megasaki City, to the point that the movie may have been better served to cut those plots altogether and keep its focus on the dogs. They’re good dogs, there should be more of them and less of everything else.