8/10 Isle of Dogs, the latest from iconic #indie filmmaker Wes Anderson, does little to set itself apart from a body of work that’s starting to become a little too homogeneous — and creates unnecessary problems for itself with the way it uses Japanese culture.
In the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki 20 years from now, an outbreak of dog flu — and a government with an ancient preference toward cats — has led to dogs being outlawed, with animal control instructed to transfer all dogs to Trash Island off the cost. The governor’s dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber) was the first to be given up. Months later, the governor’s ward, Atari Kobyashi (Koyu Rankin) takes a makeshift plane to the island to recover his beloved guardian. A pack of strays (Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum), long-since gone feral, help him navigate the desolate island.
Wes Anderson movies are kind of past the point of talking about them. They’ve been accurately described as their own genre several times. His shots, stories, and design tendencies are not only distinctive, but so similar across his career that it’s tough to distinguish his films from each other — that style and story is delightful, of course, but that almost goes without saying at this point.
Even the stop-motion animation of Isle of Dogs, at a glance, does little to distinguish it from Fantastic Mr. Fox or some shots from Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but the closer you look, the more inspired it becomes.
Anderson famously frames almost every shot symmetrically, but in Isle of Dogs there tends to be much more motion within the shot, and at well-calculated beats. Anderson makes a consistent point of using dogs themselves to drive this element of the film — their energy and quick, small motions, as well as their shape. Snouts are consistently used as leading lines. Most of the time what happens is you’ll have a dead-on shot of a dog, then he’ll turn his face 90 degrees and suddenly lend a completely different character to the shot.
This type of movement within the frame does so much to change the impact of a given shot that it’s almost like there’s a sub-edit, a much faster comedy movie going on within the more moderately paced adventure. Most of the movie’s jokes are purely visual and expressed this way, within the same shot.
There’s a strange beauty to Trash Island. From the igloo of emptied bottles to the out-of-place bamboo forest to the black owl that carries news from the mainland, there’s clearly more going on in the background of the story and a mysticism that elevates the whole experience.
This movie shouldn’t have been set in Japan. There’s been a lot said about Isle of Dogs as an act of cultural appropriation, of taking a series of archetypes related to Japan and condensing them into Wes Anderson’s pastel-colored world. Looking back, this has been a bit of an issue for the director over his entire career. He reportedly came up with the idea while shooting Fantastic Mr. Fox in London where he saw signs for the real-life Isle of Dogs — which, sadly, hasn’t been what it sounds like for hundreds of years — and set the story in Japan as a tribute to influential Japanese directors Hayao Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa.
There’s no doubt Miyazaki and Kurosawa’s nationality informed their work, but I’m not sure how Japan informs Isle of Dogs, other than as an off-putting set decoration, like the theme of a benignly racist dinner party. Humans speaking a different language than the dogs is a fun gag, but they get around it way too often with translators and an American transfer student lead character (Greta Gerwig) — and I’m pretty sure the Japanese word for dog treat isn’t “biscuit-oo” anyway.
It’s a lot of heartache that doesn’t add much to an otherwise lovely film.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and managing editor of The Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.