At the advance screening for Isle of Dogs I attended, there were several moments within the film that got laughs, gasps of delight, and rounds of clapping from the audience. As of this post’s writing, Isle of Dogs sits at 93% on Rottentomatoes.com. It is a stop-motion movie about dogs with an amazing voice cast, a creative if not super complex story, and a delightful look. I should have liked it.
I did not.
Maybe it’s because I’m not a Wes Anderson devotee and am not inured to his unique voice, comedic flourishes, or banter. I enjoyed The Life Aquatic and outside of that I have few impressions of his films, other than they employ bright colors and have a lot of neurotic people struggling to manage family relationships.
Although Isle of Dogs did many technical things very well, it did some pretty major things poorly. The story is not charming or heartwarming enough to compensate for these missteps, and ultimately the whole thing felt like the film version of an ill-conceived rainy day craft project.
What It Did Well
The production values are stellar. The character designs are compelling and invite close scrutiny over every eyelash, lock of hair, or flipped ear. Even a tick crawling through one dog’s fur was fascinating to watch. Sets are elaborate and have beautiful backdrops, and of course the compositions masterfully guide the eye. The dogs’ movements are fluid and there are several exciting fight scenes. The voice acting is seamlessly mated with the characters’ gestures and becomes truly evocative at times.
The Japanese backdrop (more on that later) was also magnificently realized through bright shoji screens and Shinto gates. Even the sushi glistens. Maki tentacles appear plush and enticing, just waiting to be sliced.
What It Did Wrong
In a short phrase: cultural tourism.
There is literally no reason to set Isle of Dogs in Japan, other than the filmmakers saying “Oh that would be fun! Yeah I love Japanese stuff!” Nothing about the story required it, and the Japanese setting and characters were handled without nuance or respect.
I am not Asian, and I am not attempting to speak for anyone. I can only describe my own reaction, and as I sat in the theater I found myself astounded. I am not the only critic to feel this way, as Odie Henderson of RogerEbert.com basically said everything I’m saying now, with the exception that I’m not a dog person.
- Although set in Japan and containing Japanese voice actors, these characters might as well be voiceless as their dialogue is not subtitled. When they are translated, the subtext is that somehow they are being mistranslated and it must be funny, because the audience doesn’t speak Japanese.
- The dogs, despite living in Japan, don’t speak Japanese and respond to Atari’s dialogue with ‘hilarious’ befuddlement, acting as audience proxies.
- Haikus delivered with deadly seriousness by Japanese characters in two pivotal moments are employed as jokes.
- Tracy, the obnoxious foreign exchange student with a blonde afro, saves the day with the power of White Saviorism by bullying and goading her stereotypically passive classmates into action.
- The ancient trope of Asian Hacker Kid is unearthed and inserted into the story.
- Yoko Ono is a punchline.
The film also committed the unforgivable crime of casting some top-notch female talent and doing nothing with them. Scarlett Johansson’s Nutmeg is introduced through slander, called a bitch, and appears now and then to spout nonsense, perform show dog tricks, and vaguely flirt with Chief (Bryan Cranston). Tilda Swinton is a clairvoyant pug whose visions come from watching the news. Frances McDormand is a translator, and Greta Gerwig voices the previously mentioned Tracy. Besides those few, there are no other female characters, dog or otherwise.
Another misstep was the tone; on the one hand this is the story of a little boy searching for his dog, which should be great family fare. But the PG-13 rating is well-earned; in the first few minutes a dog’s ear is ripped off and spat out in a fight. Females are referred to as bitches. Worst of all, there’s an emotional void at the center of every scene that leaves the viewer waiting for the next punchline rather than identifying with any of the many characters.
Having looked forward to the film, I was honestly surprised by my reaction. But in 2018, filmmakers have a responsibility to educate themselves beyond their own interests. Global audiences are watching, meaning the stakes are high financially, artistically, and also diplomatically. If a filmmaker finds him or herself waving a dismissive hand at a concern, that’s a red flag for the filmmaker that the idea needs to be explored and possibly abandoned.