13 April 2018

Isle of Dogs review

It's been the best part of a decade since writer/director Wes Anderson first ventured into the world of stop-motion animation with his wonderful take on Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox, but Isle of Dogs quite handily proves that his time away from the medium has done nothing to lessen his ability to effectively utilise it. It might be a long way from perfect thanks to some story decisions that feel insensitive at best, but between its stunning animation, a stellar voice cast, Alexandre Desplat's gorgeous score and Anderson's unique sensibilities, Isle of Dogs is probably going to end up being both the most charming and the best looking film I'll see this year.

Not that you'd guess that from the film's premise, of course, which in a vaccuum sounds about as far away from "good looking" or "charming" as you could possibly imagine. Set in the wake of fictional Japanese city Megasaki choosing to send all of its dogs to the appropriately named Trash Island after an outbreak of Snout Fever, we follow Atari Kobayashi - the adopted son of Megasaki's ruler, Mayor Kobayashi - as he searches for his guard dog/best friend Spots, who was the first to be deported. While searching for Spots, Atari befriends a pack of five dogs who decide to help him, accompanying him across Trash Island as Mayor Kobayashi attempts to both "rescue" his son and put an end to Snout Fever once and for all.

Really though, it's the aforementioned pack of dogs - Chief, Boss, Duke, King and Rex - that are the main characters of this story, thanks predominantly to a decision that results is both Isle of Dogs' greatest strengths and all of its worst problems. You see, the barks of the dogs we meet over the course of Isle of Dogs' running time are "translated" for the audience into English so that we can understand them, but the Japanese spoken by the vast majority of Isle of Dogs' human characters is left untranslated, and as such incomprehensible to anyone who doesn't speak Japanese.

And in theory, that's fine - it's pretty obvious that this decision was made so that we'd experience this story from the perspective of the dogs who can't understand what people are saying, after all. But a probably unintended and definitely unfortunate side effect of this means that despite being set in Japan, the Japanese characters of Isle of Dogs are all "othered" in favour of us identifying with these American-coded dogs, a problem only worsened when an American foreign exchange student shows up and immediately becomes Isle of Dogs' obnoxious white saviour. I'm not the first person to notice this of course (there are any number of great articles you can read that provide a more informed and personal perspective on how Isle of Dogs engages in Orientalism, cultural appropriation or the white saviour trope here, here or here), and I certainly don't think Wes Anderson meant anything by it, but I also don't think ignorance is much of an excuse in this situation. He's a film-maker with an enormous amount of influence - at a certain point we have to start talking about the responsibilities that accompany that, and they're ones that Isle of Dogs simply doesn't meet.

It's a cloud that hangs over Isle of Dogs throughout, one only made all the more frustrating by the simple fact that the film sitting in its shadow deserves better. I admit that Anderson's specific style of filmmaking is like catnip to me anyway, but I wasn't kidding when I said that Isle of Dogs might end up being the best looking film I'll see this year - the animation here is truly gorgeous, combining wonderfully with Anderson's almost trademark precision cinematography and Isle of Dogs' Japanese influence to create something both wholly unique and utterly captivating. And even in spite of its aforementioned problematic aspects, Isle of Dogs is still ultimately telling a funny, whimsical and quintessentially Wes Anderson-ian story, one that's quickly able to endear us to its canine characters thanks to some smart, efficient writing and any number of really good performances from its star-studded voice cast.

Of course, whether or not you're able to enjoy any of that in light of Isle of Dogs' aforementioned missteps is going to depend entirely on you, and I'd find it difficult to argue with anyone who isn't - at the end of the day, these are issues that don't and probably won't ever effect me personally, so who am I to say how much they should impact you? Still, if you are able to look beyond them, I think it's safe to say that Isle of Dogs isn't likely to disappoint anyone who enjoys Anderson's work, delivering a film that while inarguably flawed still manages to entertain in that way that only Wes Anderson can. They're good dogs Brent.

4 stars

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