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SXSW 2018 Review: ‘Isle of Dogs’

SXSW 2018 Review: ‘Isle of Dogs’

Isle of Dogs

Where do the distinctions between cultural admiration, appreciation, and appropriation arise when it comes to art? Readers who are prepared for another Wes Anderson experience replete with precise framing, sudden bouts of violence, plucky characters facing disaster with wit and resolve, and that ever-present vein of romanticized ennui will find all such qualities reliably presented in Isle of Dogs, albeit with a strangely pervasive inclusion that feels unusually new to him: the cultural mores, motifs, and concerns of a quasi-modern, miniaturized, “quaint-ified” Japan.

As the trailer no doubt describes, Isle of Dogs is a stop-motion animated film, a notable and instantly recognizable style which is increasingly more rare, being a prohibitively expensive production format. Wes Anderson, having already conquered this style to critical acclaim and modest financial success with Fantastic Mr. Fox, explores it here in a decidedly different story; while Fox was a Roald Dahl adaptation (a writer whose insouciant, sarcastically debonair approach to fantasy seems to meaningfully inform Anderson as a creator, in general), Isle of Dogs is an entirely original construction, and struggles at finding a satisfying purpose, let alone a clue.

Anderson’s work has always focused on white people. And before you jump to your keyboards to belabor me with counterpoint examples, I’m well aware of the films that include a character of color here and there. I’m not saying he’s never had a person of color in his work, (or, even, centered on one, with The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori being a significant, albeit culturally confused, standout), but if I could approach one single aspect of his filmmaking style it might relate to his downright passionate expression of whiteness and white perspectives. I don’t mean to imply that he’s even a hateful person in this regard, just that it’s his wheelhouse. I applaud the desire to experiment in a new mode, and Anderson’s hiring of previous collaborator Kunichi Nomura as a co-writer makes perfect sense in this context; let’s tell a definitively Japanese story, and let’s have a Japanese writer on-hand so we don’t look like total chumps. I’m a firm believer in the advent of sensitivity readers, and while I’d argue that Nomura’s contributions on the writer’s end (he’s also a main character/voice actor in the film) seem suggestive at best, and maybe a little help-me-please-only-Japanese-guy-I-know, it all seems motivated by a responsible intention to get things right.

Which is why, after all is said and done, I’m so confused and primarily disappointed by the results of this attempt. Isle of Dogs introduces you to a fabulist post-modern Japanese city known as “Megasaki” where, after a series of weirdly specific unfortunate events, dogs are perceived as pestilent and later outlawed, with all contraband mammals sent to a garbage island called, with unimaginative calm, “Trash Island.” The imprisoned dogs eventually develop a kind of cargo-cultish society of desperation and wait out the ends of their meaninglessly tragic lives, a fate potentially interfered with when a young boy named Atari infiltrates the island.

The basis for this seems like circumstantial bullshit, but there’s a rather interesting thread of corruption running throughout the story that, much like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, implies that socio-economic, criminal, and political machinations are more responsible for this cruel canine treatment than some random disease. Mayor Kobayashi (Nomura) guides the Megasaki public (and us) through propaganda and posturing, with the film employing long cold-war-ish bulletins detailing what’s going on with Trash Island, while the camera flits around between households and citizenry, some of whom are in favor of the dog ban, others fueling the resistance, yet others simply standing by in placated inactivity. I get that this is meant to be world-building, and I also can intuit some references to present-day politics (inescapable, that, regardless of intention), but I don’t really understand the meaning or significance of Isle of Dog’s world.

If this is meant to be Japan, why are the canine voice actors mostly American? If this is meant to be Japan, why is there this incredibly twee bullshit disclaimer in the intro explaining that all dog dialogue will be translated into English, but that of the humans will not (and therefore be delivered in Japanese, with no subtitles)? It’s such a strangely self-satisfied half-joke–see, it’s a movie from the perspective of dogs, not humans! English is default, enjoy–but it has no sensible logic in the fictional world. If everyone speaks Japanese, what is the purpose of the English translator working for television/radio broadcasts? Why would this world need her? Why are there two romantic subplots, one including a foreign exchange student who, conveniently, speaks English and runs white-savior-rampant through the third act? Is the implication that the dogs are the empathetic guides for the audience, and the Japanese characters are the “other” in this scenario? Is it not bad enough that a white American filmmaker is utilizing the language and visual qualities of another culture, but simultaneously distancing them from the viewer through some arbitrary mechanism we’re meant to applaud?

In the hands of a filmmaker more devoted to vagaries or subtlety, the above critical meanderings would feel flimsier. But Wes Anderson doesn’t do subtle. He’s precise. He’s finicky. His characters hide things from each other which omniscient narrators hungrily expose. His dialogue is unusually specific and detailed, plainly expressed, calmly expressed. His intrigues are compartmentalized and symmetrical like a plastic-wrapped airplane meal, and his filmic references are heroically staged. I’ve read at least two Isle of Dogs reviews that fretfully hand-raise about deliberate sound cues inspired by Kurosawa’s films, a flourish I enjoyed while also finding completely disposable. I wager that this extends throughout the film itself, whose cruelties mix with obtuse sillinesses (maybe another Anderson trait) amplified by cartoonish shenanigans, which makes for a low-stakes, unpredictably insincere fable on the whole.

I love stop-motion. I love dogs (and cats, and various other critters). And I dig a lot of the talented voice actors here, with Bryan Cranston continuing to produce top quality results in these types of gigs. So why then, I ask, is a film about dogs on a garbage island full of so many extended bouts of centered talking heads? The majority of scenes employ a weirdly stilted style of filmed conversation, focusing the frame on one or more dogs who stare directly into the camera, delivering their lines like sober sock puppets. It’s extremely boring, visually. Quaint crafty touches like cotton wool being used to represent a fracas cloud between multiple dogs or smoke coming from a stovepipe is fine, but not exactly exciting either. The most reliable visual draw is the backgrounds, with Trash Island including a fascinating mix of multicolored garbage sculpture in its sets, and living rooms in Japan being designed with incredibly fine detail. The dogs themselves look a little stiff, like unmoored furry antique rocking horses, but their faces are compellingly emotive and their character designs visually distinct, and while I don’t understand how a dog could effectively “whistle” it doesn’t pull me out of the story as much as the boring staging.

I feel strange being a little harsh to this film, because it ticks a lot of my boxes. It has some memorable treasures, including a sushi-preparation scene which, weirdly, might be my favorite. There’s a plot development that appears alongside a cameo by Harvey Keitel which feeds an important part of the narrative that wants to talk about the occlusion of a population’s injured, disabled, and forgotten in modern society. Those are the messages which made me perk up in my seat during the film and want more, but they’re scattered around all different types of hazy Japanese-ness. If there’s a message about universality and love here, it gets convoluted in politics, in Anderson’s complex misunderstandings, muddled by something essentially strayed, uninformed, yet palpably well-meaning.

It’s a lot of words to say that Isle of Dogs is ultimately decent, a watchable stop-motion animated film that fans of such will obviously flock to, but the Japanese garments it proudly struts in completely don’t fit. Wes Anderson’s concept may represent the preliminary steps to engaging a more meaningful cultural conversation, but there is much more work left to do. Isle of Dogs is profoundly lost in approach, not just in translation.

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