Japanese Diorama Dog Movie Review

A movie with this level of hand-craftsmanship doesn’t come along very often, and even if you aren’t a fan of Wes Anderson’s quirky aesthetic or brand of characters and dialogue, I would encourage anyone who likes movies or animation as a whole to go see this movie. Thematically, I think it introduces some interesting characters and ideas that are generally pretty underrepresented. We aren’t allowed to have movies anymore without some kind of controversy, and I’ll delve into that, along with some spoilers, after the jump.

Isle of Dogs is about a squad of dogs dumped on a trash island after the mayor of a nearby megatropolis declares all dogs a public health hazard. A young boy crash lands, searching for his own dog that was also his bodyguard. A quest across a drably intricate and gorgeous industrial decay ensues with snappy dialogue from vocal talent like Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Scarlett Johansson, and Greta Gerwig. I thought it was delightful, 4.5/5.

MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD!

Full disclosure: I fucking love stop-motion animation. I’m just the right age for it, and though it was a staple for a lot of the programming I grew up on, the subversive glimpses I got of 200 Motels or Tool’s haunting music video collaborations with Adam Jones always showed a potential for what later came with shows like Morel Orel and Robot Chicken. Wes Anderson’s previous film featuring the format was adapting Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox which I thought was splendid, and so I was pretty excited when I found out he would be returning to the technique with Isle of Dogs. There’s a stunning scene shot top-down of a sushi chef preparing a bento box that might be the pinnacle of the form for me.

Wes Anderson is another thing I’m basically “just the right age for.” The bulk of his best films came out when I was of formative age and it was easy for me to put stuff like The Life Aquatic and The Royal Tenenbaums on a pedestal over the avalanche of schlock that came out at the turn of the millennium. Anderson is a sort of cultural gateway to auteur film-making, depending on what age you find him. Lately, however, it’s been a little bit of a crapshoot. Moonrise Kingdom was cute and charming, but felt almost self-parodying as well as deliberately designed for a younger audience, and The Grand Budapest Hotel plays like a lookbook with a plot. Both are films I feel Anderson is trying to experiment and move away from family-related motifs, possibly in response to criticism that he tends to re-use formulas that undoubtedly work. I appreciate that attempt to evolve as a writer and film-maker, and so neither film are works I think anyone should hold against him. He’s also without longtime script collaborators in Luke and Owen Wilson since The Darjeeling Limited, which I mostly enjoyed. The Wilson brothers have a brooding comedic timing that Anderson lacks, preferring a more whimsical and quicker style closer to early Terry Gilliam.

Isle of Dogs feels like a return to form. The Anderson-ensemble-cast, as anyone could predict, does a wonderful job with a great script. I laughed out loud several times in the theater and despite several flashbacks and world-building exposition sequences, the plot moves pretty quickly. As a smoker, all movies feel twenty minutes too long, and Isle of Dogs drags for about ten. It’s hard to feel like I’m not taking such hard work for granted, because every piece of this movie is painstakingly put together, with seamless integration of more traditional animation techniques woven into action scenes depending on the tech level and perspectives of those viewing them.

Chief, voiced by Bryan Cranston, is the obvious leader of the dogs, despite as a stray dog in a group of dogs that used to live in houses, he eschews the whole premise of masters and insists Trash Island is a way for dogs to prove they can live on their own and take care of themselves. Ed Norton’s dog Rex is more of a meddling bureaucrat, trying to get all the other dogs to vote on every little decision when Chief just wants everyone to act autonomously and in the interest of the pack. This was a fun dynamic exploring some non-traditional political persuasions that aren’t often seen in mainstream film (and make no mistake, an auteur as widely celebrated and distributed as Anderson is mainstream film), not to mention the apartheid segregation system the dogs endure at the hands of a totalitarian state.

TEACH THE CONTROVERSY!!!

There’s been some criticism about cultural appropriation and while I think it’s fine those issues have been raised, I think it’s a little misplaced. Very deliberately, much of the film’s story is based on traditional Japanese fables, and because 35-45% of the film is in unsubtitled and untranslated Japanese, certain simplifications of dialogue likely only apparent to native speakers were made. I don’t think this was done to diminish the beautiful Japanese language or reduce the Japanese characters in this film to stereotypes, but rather to showcase the animation format’s ability to convey emotion in detailed facial expression and choreographed motion. In Anderson’s style, which tends to visually notate pieces of kitsch, I could see how that could be misinterpreted as parody or taking the piss out of something, and much of what I felt could be characterized as “stereotypical” were extremely obvious homages to Akira Kurosawa. They would’ve been almost over-the-top, but it appears enough critics didn’t catch them, so Anderson evidently knows his audience.

The other thing about the language barrier in a movie deliberately presented to western audiences in a foreign language is that this movie is about the universality of dog love. Japanese culture adores dogs (as well as cats, who initially win a war against dogs), and this movie is very much about how much some of us would miss them, even if they were dangerous, and “what if we could hear them?” Ten years ago I pirated a copy of District 9 and wasn’t aware it didn’t come encoded with subtitles. I watched the whole thing thinking it was a grand clever statement on language barriers and how universal the concept of love can be before figuring out sometime later that they caption the alien dialogue through the whole film and I debated throwing my pretentious ass in traffic after the realization. Dogactually accomplishes that exact feat and I paid for the ticket this time.

I’m not sure the plot could work within the social constructs of western culture, which is why themes congruent to traditional mainstays of Japanese culture (order, neatness) and issues in Japanese society were more adaptable, giving this film more of a sense of cultural diffusion and celebration rather than a mocking tone or exploitative vibe. Anderson seems self-aware of this perception in Gerwig’s Tracy character, an exchange student (that handily helps translate more exposition-crucial Japanese dialog) that becomes excessively politically active in a pro-dog reintegration student group before ultimately being ordered to be deported after several disruptions of the political process. The easy nod to her obvious rich student white savior complex is that her dog, lost on Trash Island, is a showdog Nutmeg, Johansson’s character, that enchants Chief with her immaculate grooming and impressive juggling tricks. It’s a bit disingenuous for critics to lambaste the film for a character obviously written to have precisely those problematic traits.

I was bummed there wasn’t a short in front of the movie! I’d gotten used to that and was curious if Natalie Portman and Jason Schwartzman were going to pop up and hash out more of that relationship that doesn’t work or however that was going. It’s nice to see what kind of location Anderson is in love with, like a geographical check-in you can use to perhaps predict what kind of film might be next.

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