There is an unsuspecting smugness to just about everything Wes Anderson directs. I say unsuspecting as a way of giving benefit of doubt to the Isle of Dogs director, that perhaps the smugness is not a function of genuinely being an overly self-satisfied prat. It’s hard to say for sure though because everything Anderson directs has a similarly self-congratulatory quality; as if their very existence were a form of higher art than others.
Isle of Dogs, for instance, carries the signature of Anderson with its immense amount of artistry used to tell a relatively minor story. It is quite similar to Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox which, for me, had way more art than necessary for what was an incredibly minor story of modest achievement. Isle of Dogs has a more heartfelt story than Fantastic Mr. Fox and because of that, I am giving it more leeway. There seems to be something genuine at the heart of this otherwise thin tale.
Chief (Bryan Cranston) is the leader of a pack of former house pet pups who now fight and scrounge for food on a trash island off the coast of the fictional city of Megasaki, Japan. Though Chief has always been a stray, the rest are former pets who were sent to Trash Island by decree of the Mayor of Megasaki following an outbreak of so-called Dog Flu. That the Mayor and his family have a history of hating dogs dating back centuries leads a small group to battle on behalf of the pups, including a young American visiting student voiced by Greta Gerwig.
One day while scavenging for food, Chief and his friends, including dogs voiced by Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Jeff Goldblum, spot a small prop plane as it crashes on Trash Island. In the plane is a young boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin) and he has come to the island to find his dog, Spots (Liev Schrieber). Over Chief’s objections, the pack offers to help Atari leading to a perilous journey across Trash Island and a showdown with the Mayor’s forces that include dog-catchers and nasty robot dogs intended as replacements for real dogs.
It’s important to recognize before going forward that there is a controversy, and a quite reasonable one, regarding the portrayal of Japanese people in Isle of Dogs. Wes Anderson’s decision to have mostly white actors portray the voices of the hero dogs and not use subtitles for the Japanese characters, keeping them at a distance from anyone who doesn’t speak the language, is a choice that was a mistake. It’s called "Othering" and it renders people who are perfectly normal in a fashion that is alienating and it was an unnecessary choice on the part of Anderson. The choice of a mostly white hero cast and an almost entirely Japanese villain cast is, at the very least, problematic.
Not being Asian myself, I can’t speak to how hurtful this is, I can only recognize fellow critics who’ve raised this concern and acknowledge that I agree with their reasonable points. Jen Yamato and Justin Chang of the L.A Times wrote about this with thoughtful nuance here. Wes Anderson may not have had any willful intent but his choices were clumsy and irresponsible and I can understand why people feel hurt by those choices. Here’s hoping Anderson and other filmmakers will make more sensitive choices in the future.
As for the story, Isle of Dogs is a mild entertainment that gets most of its charm from its artful creation. The animation style of Isle of Dogs is crafty and quite beautiful. The hard work is right there on the screen, you can see the amount of time and effort it must have taken to make this movie and it’s impossible not to appreciate the lovely attention to detail and the incredible artistry of the puppeteers and artists who brought Anderson’s vision to unique life.
Aside from the stylish animation, Isle of Dogs is a rather thin story. Mildly amusing, the film appeals to dog lovers and uses that appeal, that existing bond to push this plot forward. It’s hard not to sympathize with victimized pets placed in peril by evil forces and when they are championed by an adorable young boy deeply dedicated to his furry best friend, well, it’s an irresistible story. The charming details about Atari’s tough kid posturing and the affect-less line readings, typical of Wes Anderson’s style, add to the irresistible qualities of Isle of Dogs.
I have my reservations about Isle of Dogs, especially my concern for those whom the film has quite reasonably offended but taking it just as a movie, Isle of Dogs is artful and sweet-natured. No offense was intended by Isle of Dogs. That doesn’t excuse the film from having offended people but the lack of intent at the very least means the movie isn’t hateful. That’s more than can be said of some Hollywood products that clumsily traipse upon other cultures.