Movie Review: Isle of Dogs (Second Opinion)
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Ed Norton, and Koyu Rankin
Plot: With the help from a pack of quarantined dogs, a Japanese boy searches for his own dog on trash island
Back in 2009, Wes Anderson released his first foray into stop motion animation with his adaptation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox. It seems like such a perfect fit for Wes Anderson’s usual style. The way all his sets look like a page from a pop-up book. The way his characters are always dead center like a Punch and Judy puppet show. The way the costumes look like a black and white sitcom that some kid colored in with pastel markers. Except both this and The Fantastic Mr. Fox both left me pretty cold.
It stars a pack of dogs voiced mostly by Anderson regulars: Ed Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Bob Balaban. They have been quarantined on a junkyard island because they have caught a dog illness that people fear will leap to humans. There is a general Dirty Dozen vibe to this group of “alpha dogs” acting as a group, however, that extends only to their circumstances. They may be voiced by some of the coolest actors working today, but they are only here because Wes Anderson asked them to be. There is nothing about these dogs that make them interesting characters to play or for us to spend time with. In fact, the level of actor voicing them seems like a waste considering how often they all talk at the same time rendering them indistinguishable. Just know that a group of adventurers featuring the voices of Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum doesn’t reach the potential it implies.
The only one that stands apart is Bryan Cranston’s Chief. Chief is a street dog with no master to pine over. Instead, he obsessively keeps his distance from his chosen gang so as to never lose his top dog reputation. When Akira, a Japanese boy in search of his pet, manages to crash land on the island, he bonds with Chief, who pledges to help him find his dog, Spots. This allows Chief to have the only thing resembling an arc. Cranston, new to the world of Anderson, brings so much life to Chief that seems missing from so many of the other characters. Anderson’s dialog is categorically dry and stilted, and in order for it to have the proper stylistic punch, I think it requires the nuance of a human face.
Anderson also spends much more time back on the mainland than I thought he would. The interpersonal and political drama among the heads of state, protesters, and scientists determining the future of dogs is rather boring. It suffers the same fate as Chief’s wildpack: everything is so much more stiff than Anderson’s usually style without the nuance of live action. It only serves as a distraction from the much more interesting and emotionally invested journey of Chief from alpha loner to loyal friend.
By now, you have probably heard that this movie is problematic when it comes to its representation of Japanese people. Anderson set out to homage various elements of influential filmmaker, Akira Kurasawa, Kurasawa is not a director is one I am shamefully inexperienced in, so I can’t really speak to whatever easter eggs Anderson may have hidden. It should be noted that much of the criticism that I have seen don’t seem to be about the specifics of Japanese culture. The caricatures seem more archetypical than racial (ie the more villainous, the more grotesque), but I’m sure there were some offended by it. Instead, the major concern seems to come from Anderson taking away their agency.
A disclaimer at the beginning of the movie explains that Japanese dialogue will be in its native language with no subtitles, and dog dialog will be translated into English. It seems clever, like when Chief can’t chat with Akira and remarks “I wish someone spoke his language.” It gets sadder when back on the mainland where the voices of the Japanese people are replaced with the voice of Frances McDormand as a UN translator and Greta Gerwig as an American foreign exchange student. None of us are new to subtitles. This was an unnecessary decision.
There is no denying that there is a heartfelt and thrilling adventure at the center of this movie, but Anderson seems unable to properly translate his very specific style to what seems like a no-brainer medium for him to dabble in.