Isle of Dogs
Dir. Wes Anderson
“Will you help him, the little pilot?”
“Why should I?”
“Because he’s a twelve year old boy. Dogs love those.”
With all the same wry humor and pleasantly symmetrical compositions characteristic of a Wes Anderson film, Isle of Dogs spins a tale of loyalty and love between a boy and man’s best friend. Anderson’s newest film features a familiar cast (among them Bill Murray, Edward Norton, and Frances McDormand) and marks the director’s second adventure in stop-motion animation after Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Set twenty years in the future in Japan, Isle of Dogs follows the story of a young boy named Atari as he tries to find his lost pet on an island of exiled dogs. Due to a dog flu epidemic that has taken over the city of Megasaki, Mayor Kobayashi, a vehement anti-dog proponent, decrees that all dogs be sent to a “trash island” just off the coast, transported via creaky metal baskets. The dogs quickly form feral packs in search of food, where we meet a ragtag group of dogs made up of King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), and their rough around the edges leader Chief (Bryan Cranston). After crash-landing on the island, Atari sets in motion a revolution to save all dogs on trash island and help reform the surly Chief in the process.
As with all Wes Anderson films, there is a certain unattached quirkiness that lends itself to the script and makes for delightfully dry humor. The stop-motion animation lends itself to Anderson’s ability to create a beautiful shot but this time with a new color palette of more muted browns and reds. Anderson’s strongest choice in the film is probably his refusal to subtitle anything said in Japanese, relying on the audience’s ability to pick up on body language and tonality. So while all dogs can speak English, Atari speaks in only Japanese, and Western audiences rely heavily on context to glean meaning from what the young boy says. While a unique idea when approaching a setting outside of the United States it does make one wonder how the film is to be presented outside of the U.S. and if perhaps the film was crafted with too Western a lens. After all, the character of Tracy, a blonde foreign exchange student from Ohio and studying in Japan, speaks, even to her Japanese classmates, in English throughout the entire movie, save for a ten second interval where she speaks hurriedly in Japanese to her host mother.
Although the film was an enjoyable and aesthetically pleasing experience overall, as an Asian American, I found myself sinking into my chair at the very idea of Tracy, a character who could have very easily been Japanese. While I understand the “rules” Wes Anderson seems to have created for this world in order for an English-speaking audience to understand the film, I wonder how the film translates, quite literally, to non-English-speaking countries. There is something so underhandedly infuriating as well when a movie about talking dogs insists on having the dogs characterized as love interests all be blonde or light-haired.
Isle of Dogs’ greatest strength is in its sentiment and its biggest downfall is unfortunately in the way it seems to use Japan as a backdrop more than anything else.