I would describe my dog as generally smart but sometimes really dumb, and occasionally too smart for his own good. And like people, he possesses a personality of his own. He’s fairly timid to other humans but very curious about the world around him. Most of all, I know he loves me unconditionally. And there’s no better place to fit the utter earnestness of dogs other than right beside the quirky charm of a Wes Anderson movie.
Isle of Dogs is set in Japan, roughly twenty years in the future. Mayor Kobayashi of the fictional city of Megasaki has issued an executive order to ban and deport all the dogs in the city, due to the outbreak of snout fever that threatened the human population. The dogs were transported to a trash disposal island and left to their own devices. But one day, a boy named Atari hijacked a plane and flew to the isle of dogs to look for his companion, Spots. After he crash-landed on the island, he came upon a pack of five dogs: King, the commercial actor; Duke, the one that always has a rumor to tell; Boss, the baseball mascot; Rex, the sentimental dog that likes to butt head with Chie;, and finally, Chief, the cynical stray. The pack later elected to help Atari to reunite with his lost dog. And so they set out to the uncharted area of the trash island to locate Spots. The signal from the crashed plane’s black box alerted the authorities, and the news story of the boy inspired a local high school student group to investigate and uncover the true motive behind this anti-dog agenda.
Isle of Dogs has all the whimsical fun and symmetrical framing of an Anderson movie, but it has less underlying melancholy this time around. The heavier part of the story mainly deals with Chief’s trust issues and violent tendencies; he was one of the few characters with a fully developed character arc in this movie. With that said, I don’t consider Isle of Dogs as a particularly young-children-friendly film (it received a 6+ rating in Taiwan, and I saw parents brought their pre-teen kids to my screening). The movie still contained pre-meditated murder and mutilations. Otherwise, this film is a riot.
Don’t fret about my comment regarding few character arcs. Isle of Dogs boasts a huge cast; the movie stars nearly all of Anderson’s usual suspects and more (with the exception of Jason Schwartzman, as he’s writing this time). Every one of them is a colorful addition to the misfit bunch, however, brief some of the appearances were. All of the dogs had excellent chemistry with each other, especially the five-dog-pack. The alpha-dogs (what the pack called themselves) had a great sense of camaraderie among members of the pack. The single-minded Atari’s quest had a lot of forwarding momentum and was propelled by these wonderful dogs. And the student group led by exchange student Tracy Walker closes in on the conspiracy from the other side.
The quality of the animation also lent itself to the film’s energy. Compared to Fantastic Mr. Fox, the movements of the models in Isle of Dogs were smoother and more natural looking. This film really showcases Anderson’s meticulous aesthetics; sets of various locales were each well-lit and full of details. Isle of Dogs is one of Anderson’s prettiest movies to date. Many scenes were so strikingly composited, I could print them out and hang them on a wall.
Speaking of the Japanese settings, one can not simply go about reviewing this movie without addressing the criticisms regarding cultural appropriation and the White Savior trope. I am not Japanese, nor am I fluent in Japanese, so I could not attest to the authenticity (or lack thereof) of the settings. However, there have been several pieces written from the perspectives of native speakers and Japanese nationals. Some took issues with made up loan words, and some with line delivery and set design. They are worth a read.
I do have something to say about the criticisms. I figured the language barrier between humans and dogs created by non-English cultural setting work better than dogs pretending to not understand human-spoken English dialogues. All the spoken Japanese lines were without subtitles, but you can still understand them through context and delivery. But when they get talked over by English interpreters, this creative decision started to feel more like an arbitrary self-imposed restriction. You see, Isle of Dogs is not entirely without subtitles. Whenever the movie does a close-up to an object with Japanese texts on it, English subtitles appear. And the act is even more obvious to me since I can read Kanji. The language rules in Isle of Dogs were half-commitments and compromises. It was fine when interpreter Nelson (Frances McDormand) acted as the English voice of Mayor Kobayashi and his policies because he was his own agent. What’s less fine was American exchange student Tracy Walker becoming the sole voice and replacing a Japanese student as the leader of the dissenting student group. You can see why some people were unhappy about this plot development.
I don’t believe Anderson set out to offend. He’s put care and respect into every movie he has made, and Isle of Dogs is no exception. Within the lovingly crafted visuals were messages of friendship and family (and perhaps a commentary on the situation of immigrants, given the current political climate). It’s a fun and exciting ride, albeit with a rushed resolution.