As a die hard Wes Anderson fanatic, I had no doubts about this movie when I originally saw the trailer for it several months ago. Unfortunately since its release in early April, Isle of Dogs has garnered a lot of negative attention and claims of cultural appropriation. Despite this, I knew I needed to see it to not only understand what reviewers were referring to, but also to keep up with my streak of seeing every single one of his films.
As a disclaimer for this review, I am extremely biased towards Wes Anderson. I know he crafts beautiful films, each one a true work of moving image arts, therefore I will speak of him highly here. From story, to set, to characters, every moment of every one of his films is meticulously orchestrated and well thought out. Isle of Dogs is no exception because it is entirely stop motion animation and we can all imagine how long that must possibly take.
In true Wes Anderson fashion, we will break this review into four parts, starting at the beginning.
Chapter 1: Style is the Crux of the Film
I am aware that the over the top, stylized nature of Anderson can be see as too much to some. Additionally, I must admit that his use of the same cast of actors playing very similar characters throughout each of his films can get repetitive. That being said, I believe that all of these factors are just part who he is as a filmmaker. He sticks to what he knows and he continues to expand his creativity as he becomes more successful.
I have followed Anderson’s career through the years, watching his style expand to a larger and larger scale with each new movie release. Isle of Dogs is the height of his stylized filmmaking career; which is more than likely the result of quite a large budget.
Set pieces and location have always played large roles in his films. Usually each scene features either a very wide shot of the landscape, placing characters dead center, and/or a character narrating what the significance or description of that location is. Isle of Dogs takes this to its highest point- every set, new scene, location, and prop is described and presented to us to see very clearly. And I totally understand why he did this: his crew built these gorgeous backdrops, and we really want to see every detail. Maybe this adds unnecessary dialogue or minutes to the scenes, and maybe he didn’t even need to build as many set pieces in the first place, but that doesn’t bother me at all. When it comes to stop motion, everything becomes fun to look at, like watching a diorama come to life. And speaking of backdrops, this brings me to the not so grand side of the movie.
Chapter 2: The Negativity and the Reviewers
If you have not read other reviews of this film, basically they call Anderson out for using Japanese culture as a clichéd backdrop for the story. They complain that the majority of the main cast of characters is all voiced by non Japanese speaking individuals and many of the references to Japan do not represent the country as a whole.
I actually lived in Japan for a couple years when I was younger, though that doesn’t make me an expert or a judge as to whether or not this film was truly offensive, but I agree and disagree with what some of the critics were saying. On the one hand, the film felt similar to an anime film- slightly exaggerated and expressive. He showed us sumo wrestlers and geishas, all the typical things you would expect to see in a Japanese movie made by a white male.
In an effort not to spoil any aspect of the story, I will just say that the dogs were all English speakers and everyone else aside from a foreign exchange student and translator, spoke Japanese. The English speaking characters, the dogs, seemed very mild tempered and similar in disposition to previous Anderson characters. The Japanese characters were more expressive and less like Anderson’s true characters; they spoke entirely in Japanese and often did not have translations or subtitles for their dialogue. The Little Pilot, who is the main character in the film, does not ever speak a line of dialogue in English. A choice that I thought was very unique but inhibited non Japanese speaking audiences because we were forced to see and hear everything from the dogs’ perspectives rather than from the perspective of the boy who was so important.
Additionally, it didn’t bother me that much that the main characters weren’t voiced by Japanese actors because the film is primarily made for U.S. audiences. But again, Anderson loves to use the same actors in each film, which is great, but I do think in this case it was a missed opportunity to incorporate more Japanese American actors.
On the other hand, Isle of Dogs wasn’t purposefully insulting or offensive. I would genuinely like to believe that Anderson meant to showcase some of the great aspects about Japanese culture while still telling a beautiful story at the same time. He had a Japanese screenwriter working with him and, wether or not they contributed to the story overall or just the translations is unclear, I still think he did a gorgeous job of trying to bring culture into his film’s narrative.
Chapter 3: Never Watch the Trailers
Finally- and this isn’t the fault of Anderson- but this entire film was spoiled in the trailers that I watched. It made me so aggravated because there were no surprises. The beauty of Anderson’s films is that the story unfolds as you follow the characters. I knew all the characters from the trailers and more or less figured out the plan of the evil villain from them as well.
I urge you- if you have not seen the trailer, then you must avoid it at all costs. Also for this reason, I will not tell you anything about this film or its plot. You need to find it for yourself.
Chapter 4: Conclusion
If this is the first Wes Anderson movie you intend to see, or if you have already seen it, I would say that it is a lot to take in if you aren’t terribly familiar with how he runs things. My advice is that you should take a look at his most recent film prior to this one, Grand Budapest Hotel. It is slightly more subdued in terms of editing style and pacing but it is still very stylized.
If you have any thoughts about Isle of Dogs, if you agree or disagree with my opinions, or if you want to tell me if you love Wes Anderson as much as I do, please leave your comments below!
Until next time,