A review of Wes Anderson’s new stop-motion film
The Santa Clara
April 5, 2018
Frankly, I’m biased. I’ll be the first to admit I’m a huge Wes Anderson fanboy.
That being said, “Isle of Dogs” has everything I could have wanted from a new Wes Anderson movie.
I honestly cannot tell which aspect of “Isle of Dogs” I enjoyed most: the quirky, self-aware dialogue, the touching storyline, the beautiful sound design or the masterful, red-black-whiteyellow color palette.
Like Anderson’s other films, “Isle of Dogs” combines all these details to create a poignant telling of the relationship between a boy and his dog.
The story is set in a fictional Japanese city called Megasaki, twenty years into the future.
The incumbent mayor, voiced by Kunichi Nomura, and his political affiliates, who share a historically entrenched hatred of dogs, are on a mission to eradicate dogs from the city of Megasaki. They do this by transporting them to Trash Island, a nearby island that serves as a garbage dump.
Liev Schreiber voices Spot—the dog of the mayor’s distant nephew and ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) and the first of the dogs to be exiled. Atari decides that he will be having none of that, hijacks a plane and goes in search of Spot on Trash Island.
Along the way, Atari meets a pack of dogs, voiced by Bill Murray, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum and Bob Balaban, who join him on his journey through a beautiful, stop-motion animated wasteland.
As noted at the beginning of the film, all barks are rendered in English.
The audience’s experience with Atari and his canine friends is quintessentially, whimsically Andersonian.
Highly textured scenes, excellent use of camera zooms, and creative placement of characters within the window of the movie combine with an incredible score by Alexandre Desplat peppered with 60s pop, produce just the type of visual and sonic beauty Anderson fans have come to expect.
The fun and beauty of the movie aside, it would be impossible to write about “Isle of Dogs” without addressing the elephant in the room: a white director making a movie that takes place in Japan.
According to IndieWire, Anderson’s approach wasn’t necessarily to make a movie about Japan.
Alongside writers Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, Anderson says that they wanted to write a movie “about some dogs abandoned on a garbage dump, a pack of dogs who live on garbage.” “The story could’ve taken place anywhere, but it came together when we realized it should take place in a fantasy version of Japan,” Anderson said.
With that creative decision in mind, Anderson, Coppola and Schwartzman brought Japanese actor and writer Nomura on board to complete their team.
Though its culture acts primarily as a backdrop for the main action of the film, Japan was the ideal setting for the writers to explore extremist politics without overtly stepping on the toes of the American audience he is presumably trying to reach.
As Nina Li Coomes points out in The Atlantic, “Isle of Dogs” recognizes and uses the “Western tradition of, intentionally or otherwise, rendering Japan as a mysterious land with an incomprehensible people and culture.”
She argues that the entire plot of the film hinges on that strangeness. Anderson, whose films are known for articulate, heavily annunciated dialogue, has, according to Coomes, rendered the Japanese dialogue nearly unintelligible to native speakers. He also intersperses the Japanese dialogue with pseudo Japanese words that are obvious reworkings of English (ex: “sitto” instead of “osuwari”). Coomes points out that these edits to the language make the Japanese words “decorative background chatter” rather than actual dialogue.
I’m not going to argue that it is incorrect to interpret the use of Japan in the film purely as a play on the traditional Western view of the nation.
In fact, that might have been Anderson’s only intention—to make the film feel different.
However, I do think that by placing the film in Japan, Anderson was able to quietly add a political undertone to the film that the average American viewer would not necessarily be looking for.
While the film maintained its universality and wide marketability at a surface level, it did carry an underlying critique of the hysteria created around, for example, Muslim immigrants in the United States.
While political undertones are present, Anderson is not usually an overtly political director.
“Isle of Dogs” reflects his ability to create a widely appealing movie while also leaving room for interpretation by the viewer who seeks a message from the film.
Contact Ethan Beberness at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.