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Review: Isle of Dogs (2018)

Isle of Dogs (2018)

Directed by: Wes Anderson

Premise: A stop motion animated feature. Set in the near future, dogs are banned from a Japanese city and exiled to a garbage dump. A group of canines assist a twelve year old boy who has come to the island in search of his lost pet.

What Works: Isle of Dogs is an exceptionally crafted animated feature. This is one of the best looking stop motion animated films of recent years. It retains the charm that is particular to the stop-motion format but it is done with a smoothness and detail that rivals the best work in this genre. The film is packed with subtle details like the way dog fur ripples in the wind and the way that the people and animals express themselves. It’s a terrific fusion of live action and traditional animation, which is exactly what makes stop-motion unique, and Isle of Dogs is a work of masterful craftsmanship. Isle of Dogs is also distinguished by its maturity. The movie is rated PG-13 and the rating is mostly earned. But as an animated film, Isle of Dogs deals with issues and ideas that are a bit darker than a lot of the films coming out of Hollywood’s animation houses. Even Pixar, which is the standard bearer for American animated feature films, tends toward safe and inoffensive stories. Compare this to titles like Watership Down and Grave of the Fireflies or some of the Don Bluth films of the 1980s like The Secret of NIMH. Isle of Dogs is much closer in tone to these other movies than it is to contemporary animated pictures and the filmmakers give viewers something a little more substantive than the latest Despicable Me adventure. The premise of Isle of Dogs has a built in appeal. Everyone who likes dogs will automatically be taken by the boy-and-his-dog scenario and the filmmakers use this successfully to invest us in the characters without overplaying the sentimentality.

What Doesn’t: Wes Anderson is a filmmaker with a distinct style and who is much more interested in character than in plot. A lot of different characters and subplots are thrown together and most of them aren’t resolved in a way that is satisfying or that makes thematic or narrative sense. This excess also detracts from the relationship between the boy and the dogs which is the main thrust of this story. Isle of Dogs has also been rightly criticized for its Orientalism. There is nothing inherently wrong with filmmakers telling stories in a culture other than their own. Outsiders can sometimes provide a fresh perspective. However, some of Anderson’s choices in Isle of Dogs are culturally tone deaf. The way he depicts Japanese people often plays to stereotypes such as women inexplicably dressed in geisha outfits and other characters appearing as sumo wrestlers and samurai. Isle of Dogs’ representation of Japan and its people feels like that of a filmmaker whose only encounter with the country has been through movies. A lot of the Japanese characters don’t act with volition while an American foreign exchange student drives the resistance to the corrupt politicians. Intentionally or not, Isle of Dogs marginalizes its Japanese characters and exoticizes their culture. It’s not done in a mean or degrading way but it is troubling nonetheless.  

Bottom Line: Isle of Dogs is a mixed result. The film is an undeniable technical achievement and it expands the animation genre beyond advertisements for toy sales and theme park attractions. But its storytelling is flawed as is its use of Japanese culture.

Episode: #696 (April 29, 2018)