I have a love/hate relationship with Wes Anderson’s movies. On the plus side, I’m a huge fan of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, and I enjoyed Moonrise Kingdom, but I flat out hated (and couldn’t finish) The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. This kind of black and white reaction to his movies hasn’t made him a must-see filmmaker for me, and it’s why I haven’t gone through his catalogue with the same kind of enthusiasm I have for directors such as David Fincher. When you add to that the fact that I’m not a fan of animated features either, I avoided The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Why, then, did I bother with Isle of Dogs, his latest? Mostly, I wanted to see what the controversy was all about.
If you’re unaware, upon release the movie was slammed by certain movie critics and loud voices on social media for the content in comments ranging from “cultural appropriation” to “borderline racist”, depending on the level of outrage it generated. Personally speaking, I don’t have these kinds of proxy-hang ups, then again, I’m a white male so make of that what you will. But I’m neither insensitive nor ignorant to the points being made. Two movies I’ve watched in the recent past have come under fire for similar reasons: The Great Wall, and Ghost In The Shell. While it didn’t help that these movies were mostly rubbish, the former is a pretty good example of the “white saviour” trope, and the latter highlighted the practice of “whitewashing”, by casting Scarlett Johansson in the role of a very un-Japanese looking cyborg in the generic adaptation of the famous manga. In both cases the moviemakers have claimed (not unreasonably) that funding and box office likely depended on securing headliners like Matt Damon and Johansson to star, but the stigma of that approach lingers, as it does with Isle of Dogs.
I’m not going to focus on this criticism – that’s best left up to people who have a stake in it – but since it’s one of the main reasons I decided to watch it, I can’t very ignore it, right? First though, what about the movie itself? While the title is to be taken literally, it’s also a cute, though obvious, pun (“I love dogs”). It doesn’t refer to the area off the Thames in the east end of London, although Anderson claims it inspired the movie itself, but a fictional island off the coast of Megasaki, a fictional Japanese city. Originally created as a garbage dump, it’s now home to the dogs that have been banished from the city due to an outbreak of canine flu that can cross over to the human population. The movie’s prologue tells an ancient story of cats v dogs, where the humans who loved cats defeated those who loved dogs, and of course this plays a role in the main story itself.
When Spots. the beloved guard dog of Atari Kobayashi, the movie’s young human protagonist, is banished to the island, Atari steals a plane in order to rescue him. Instead, he crash lands on the island where he is befriended and nursed back to health by a pack of dogs voiced by Ed Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, bill Murray, and Bryan Cranston. Cranston’s character, Chief, is a mangy, aggressive sort who wants nothing to do with Atari, or his mission, but is generally guilt tripped and outvoted by the others at various stages. Because Atari is the nephew of the city’s devious mayor, the authorities aim to rescue him – but Atari is single minded in his pursuit of Spots, who may not even still be alive, and the pack has bonded with him and his goal. Together, they fend off the “rescue” attempts, which are more about the mayor saving face than any great love for his nephew.
This is a pretty typical “rescue” plot. Atari and the dogs continue across the island encountering and overcoming greater and greater perils, and characters who aid or hinder the mission, in pursuit of Spots. The characters don’t really evolve or change, other than Chief, because it’s incidental to the actual plot. There’s a moment towards the end of an overlong Act 2 that truly surprised me. It’s a fun development, a real WOW moment (all in context, of course), and it livens the movie up substantially. I was starting to flag around the one hour mark for a variety of reasons, the majority of which was the lack of substance I felt as the movie continued. This is where my “I’m not sure who it’s meant for” comment comes from. Maybe it’s my own lack of interest in animated features, but watching Isle of Dogs, I didn’t get much of sense that Anderson was truly interested in imbuing the movie with enough sophistication for adult audiences, but also not interested in making a movie that would appeal to kids either. The story is too long and plodding for that, despite the absolutely beautiful stop motion visuals.
Here’s where the cultural appropriation comments feel a little justified to me. Anderson is a smart moviemaker, there’s no doubt about that. I find his sensibilities a little too twee though, and in the case of Isle of Dogs, his decision to set it in Japan is somewhat odd and largely pointless. The story itself could easily have been set in just about any culture, but while it’s clearly a fond nod to Japanese animation he watched as a child, the cartoonish depiction of the culture seems like it’s something best handled by someone from that culture. I mean I get it, Anderson isn’t trying to depict Japan, he’s trying to replicate older Japanese cartoons, but it feels heavy handed to me, full of shorthand details that westerners can readily identify as “Japanese”, but it’s like someone from Japan making a movie about Britain where they all walk around in bowler hats sipping Earl Grey. And the movie makes the prime mistake of using the “white saviour” trope that’s rightfully kind of vilified these days. In an animated movie, there’s no real audience-identification character in terms of physical appearance, so when the reins of leadership are handled by American foreign exchange student Tracy Walker because she is the only one who suspects the mayor has an ulterior motive, it feels a little awkward to me. Like the fact the story could have played out anywhere, using a western character to save the day strike me as a little tone-deaf on the part of Anderson. There’s no crime here, or any kind of racist intent, but he should have given some thought to the story he was telling beforehand.
As it is, for me the movie is cute and nice to look at, but it exists in a kind of neutral zone where it’s only truly going to be appreciated by Wes Anderson fans, not those of us who can take or leave him, or by kids who are likely to be increasingly uninterested as the movie unfolds. Has Anderson just become a moviemaker who knows what his fans like and aims to please? I kind of feel that he is, because I can’t detect any change in his career path whatsoever. But having said that, I mentioned I’m not a follower – there is absolutely a place in movies for the dying breed of auteur filmmakers like Wes Anderson, even though I may not appreciate everything he does, and for that reason alone I hope he continues doing what he does best.
© Andrew Hope, 2018
Links to other reviews mentioned here