‘Isle of Dogs:’ A Gem in a Sometimes Trash Heap

Rating: 3/4

Wes Anderson’s latest venture, Isle of Dogs, is another example of the writer/director’s editing and camerawork craftsmanship. A triumph of his own Andersonian aesthetic, yet an albatross concerning his appetite for cultural window dressing.

The film explores a group of canines exiled to Japan’s Trash Island during an outbreak of “dog flu.” A young boy, Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Ranki), ventures into the pestilent dump to find his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber).

Visually, Anderson’s dependency on gliding/panning camera movement is immediately apparent, demonstrating the vertical and longitudinal range within any given scene. The fluidity of this technique demonstrates the planar nature of Japanese art. The camerawork also gives the film a fable, almost storybook-like feel, deepened by the decision for stop-motion animation.

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Its camera style lends itself well to Anderson’s diverse color palette. Trash Island, a boxy area that recalls Wall E, is at once playful and a decrepit nightmare. The abandoned wasteland is adorned by little to no vegetation, rats, and a deserted nuclear plant. The island’s muted and restrained hues, allow the pockets of color from decomposing food and micro settings, like the trash incinerator, to pop. This restraint is in sharp contrast to Megasaki City’s reliance on red, yellow, and green.

The contrast between the subdued colors on Trash Island, and the vibrancy of Megasaki is characteristic of mood. That is, the island inhabits most of Anderson’s deadpan humor, and the city contextualizes a “fevered” emotion among the humans. The use of color-coding is ironic as one of the symptoms of dog flu is aggression, which we innately realize is akin to the humans’ bellicose nature rather than the animals’ inherent kindness and generosity.

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The voice actors, for which there are many, all give pleasant performances. The dynamic between Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) is when the film is at its comedic peak. The five are a well-timed orchestration of Anderson’s stilted dialogue rendered organic.

Later, this group is mostly overshadowed. A pity, as its dynamic was one I missed as the film progressed through its controversial vinettes.

Much of Isle of Dogs‘ weaknesses can be attributed to the questionable rules Anderson ordains for his futuristic universe. The dogs speak (or as Anderson says, bark) English, while the Japanese actors voicing the humans, speak Japanese. The directive would be sensible, even respectful if the Japanese characters were given subtitles. Instead, the language is “dumb” down to be nothing more than grunts.

When hand waving isn’t enough, the Japanese television scenes feature a translator played by Frances McDormand. A move that makes very little sense because if the whole of Megaski is Japanese, then why is an English translator even needed?

The language imbalance is either an exclusion of the Japanese characters or a focusing on the main subjects: the dogs.

A very kind evaluator would say the latter.

I think it’s a little of both.

However, no matter the intent, the style is clunky.

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Additionally, Japan as the setting is pointless. Isle of Dogs could be set in any country. Making Japan the setting is a reliance on the exotic, as many of the visual cues are exactly that: cues. They’re there to remind us, and maybe Anderson himself, that the film is in Japan. From a pointless Sumo wrestling sequence to a “you must be this tall to ride this ride” sign, these pieces could be swapped out for whatever sport or amusement is popular in any country. They say very little about Japan or how its culture relates to the film, especially as the citizens of Megasaki are nothing more than cardboard cutouts.

The film heavily relies on the timid Asian bystanders trope, as every Asian character on the side of the dogs has to be goaded into action.

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This misstep culminates in a “the white savior” complex. Though Atari is the hero of the film, he’s supplanted by Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), an American foreign exchange student leading the “Japanese” resistance. The decision to make Walker white is another unforced error, as there’s nothing in the character to demand it.

Instead, the balance of characters are as followed: only one active Japanese figure is defiant, the rest are either passive or henchmen, while every English speaking character, except the translator, is an active protagonist. The film even goes so far as to show Walker shaking the passive Yoko Ono (yes, Ono played Ono) into action, a scene that’s horrifyingly tone-deaf.

Isle of Dogs is also dependent on Asian caricatures, such as the henchman, Major-Domo (Akira Takayama), a grey ghostly figure who shrieks, schemes, and is always given a close-up to demonstrate the scrunch Asian face “motif.”

And while bad guys in animated films tend to be caricatures, Major-Domo slides right past caricature to Mickey Rooney Mr. Yunioshi territory, and demonstrates a few troubling stereotypes. In fact, if this weren’t an animated film there’d be boycotting over that character.

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Having said of all that, yes all of that, Isle of Dogs is still an enjoyable watch. In a less capable filmmaker’s hands the film would fall apart from its own improprieties. In Anderson’s, it’s salvageable entertainment.

And there are other great aspects. The linear, yet dynamic percussion laden score gives Anderson’s montages a lively and urgent pace. The story is well structured and evenly divided by four title cards. And the film never loses steam as Anderson’s cutting is rapid. Isle of Dogs, by my count had 682 cuts. To put that in perspective, that’s an average shot length of 8.8 seconds. Which seems long, but Anderson expertly balances the longer shots with multiple interspersed montages, screen-within-the-screen scenes for the press conference segments, and side-by-side shot exchanges.

Everything about Isle of Dogs is enjoyable, except for some of the set decorations and characters around it—giving the film a lovable gem in the middle of a trash heap feel.






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