Isle of Dogs is Wes Anderson’s ninth film. If you’ve seen a Wes Anderson film, you know how particular, quirky, and Wes Anderson-y they are. And Isle of Dogs, the story of a young boy who travels to an island in Japan where his dog has been exiled, is no different. It features all of the director’s best and worst qualities.
So, positively, the film is full of good, clever, funny ideas. The story is interesting and a few subplots add more dynamics to explore. Too bad they aren’t explored.
On the negative, this film has been riddled with controversy, accusing Anderson of cultural appropriation. While I’m not an expert on the subject and the finer points of some people’s criticism of Anderson’s use of Japan here, there is an awkward tension at play. Most obviously, all of the Japanese human characters are not translated, so either they are translated by another character or their words are taken from their mouths and given to American Foreign exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig) so we can have an awkward case of a white person taking up the cause and becoming the spokesperson for another group. While there seems to be a respect for the culture (the highly selective version of Anderson’s imagination) and the language, the fact that only the American-voiced characters have agency defeats the whole purpose of telling a story in a different culture and appreciating it and its people. It’s not that a director should be prohibited from telling stories in countries and cultures that aren’t theirs, but sidelining the native people of those cultures/countries is not the best way to do it.
But does that really matter? Because the movie is about the dogs, not the humans. Maybe this is a way to bring focus to the dogs. After all, aren’t the dogs the ones with the all-star voice cast you’re excited about? Well get ready to hear maybe four lines from your favorite actor, because there are entire characters and scenes here that are thrown in just to add another name. Seriously, they serve no purpose, either in character development, plot, or worldbuilding.
This, of course, is not new to Wes Anderson. He’s a director characterized by his style, and often at the expense of concise, impactful storytelling. Every frame of this film is a masterpiece, and beauty and aesthetics are important, but why do we go to movies? The reason I watch movies, and then review them, is not because they are escapism. I believe films should strive, in some way, to communicate ideas and to reflect something about the world.
After Isle of Dogs, I had very little to say. Very little to think. Because while this movie is beautiful, it’s shallow in every sense of the word, and I would rather have an ugly film that makes me feel something, that feels intimate and loved, rather then something that feels cold and distant.
But if you love Wes Anderson and his work, you may really like this film. I’ve had a few people give me passionate arguments in defense of the film, bring up things I missed. So, if you see it and love it, you can write off this review because, I have to admit, I’m actually a cat person.