Film Review: Isle of Dogs

By Marla DiPoto

Isle of Dogs, like most Wes Anderson films such as The Grand Budapest Hotel or Moonrise Kingdom, is quirky and unusual yet surprisingly charming and captivating. The film highlights the artistry of stop motion animation through its presentation of life through the dismal eyes of forgotten dogs. Yet, as a film which takes on the Japanese perspective and culture, it is not met without controversy and questionable style and character choices.

Isle of Dogs begins in the futuristic, fictional location of Megasaki, Japan, where dog flu runs rampant throughout the city. Due to this outbreak, Mayor Kobayashi exiles all the dogs in the city to a Trash Island, where the dogs are left to fend for themselves. The main story of the film revolves around 12-year-old Atari Kobayashi, the nephew and ward of the mayor, and five dogs, Rex, King, Duke, Boss and Chief, voiced by Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray and Bryan Cranston, respectively.

Kobayashi crash lands on the island in an attempt to retrieve his own dog, Spots, who had also been exiled to the island by Mayor Kobayashi. Meanwhile, in Megasaki, there is a small group of individuals who refuse to accept the decree of Kobayashi. Namely this includes Professor Watanabe and his associates who aim to find the cure for the dog flu, as well as foreign exchange student Tracy Walker who leads her classmates in a small-scale protest against the mayor.

Besides taking on the classic bond between humans and dogs, Isle of Dogs has been questioned in terms of its cultural perspective. It is interesting that this controversy revolves primarily around the human characters themselves, rather than the actual dogs. On this subject, Justin Chang of the LA Times noted that, “it's in the director's handling of the story's human factor that his sensitivity falters, and the weakness for racial stereotyping that has sometimes marred his work comes to the fore.” These areas of insensitivity include the practice of presenting a stereotypical Western view of Japanese culture, simplifying the Japanese language to short phrases suited for the Western audience and, most notably, presenting Walker as the white American hero who rallies Japanese students towards change in Megasaki.

As someone who has a limited working knowledge of Japanese culture, I cannot necessarily speak to the issue of the language or cultural appropriation. However, I can understand how one might view the film as presenting seemingly surface-level insertions of Japanese culture, with Anderson not delving beyond the traditional aspects of Japanese culture. In terms of the character of Walker, it does seem like a particularly odd choice that while the entire film features Japanese characters, aside from the dogs themselves, that one sole, white American character is placed in the film as a catalyst for change for this entire fictional city.

Apart from these questionable cultural choices by Anderson as to whether he was making a tribute to Japanese culture or using a limited perspective to categorize the culture, something that cannot be debated is his unique and wonderfully executed overall aesthetic and style.

Photo from Fandango

Photo from Fandango

The dogs are personified in terms of being able to speak, but they are still presented traditionally as dogs in terms of their nature and perspectives. The dogs themselves have their own unique stories and past lives, which is what makes them particularly endearing. Chief, being the stray dog hardened by his life on the streets, Rex as the house dog fondly remembering his master, King as the former “Doggy Chop” spokes-dog, Duke as the gossip lover and Boss as the former baseball mascot for the Megasaki Dragons little league team. Throughout the film there is a growing compassion between the dogs, with Chief particularly learning to understand the beautiful connection between humans and dogs.

This creation of the dogs alongside the dystopian theme was also reflected in the animation of the film. Ian Failes at expressed that, “the dogs were purposely rendered as simply dogs that talked, but not necessarily humanized,” which, “meant that the puppet building team and the animators had to find a language for the animals that felt expressive, but still dog-like.” Amazingly, this animation was created through actual stop motion animation rather than digitally simulated stop motion, meaning that physical models of the sets and characters had to be created in order for each frame of movement to be captured.

In fact, according to Bill Desowitz at IndieWire, “There were 1,000 puppets: 500 dogs and 500 humans. For each individual character, a range of puppets was made in five different scales and each hero puppet took about 16 weeks to build. Every crowd puppet was hand-made as well, using multiple camera passes.”

From the slight movement of the hairs on the dogs to the smooth, plastic-like skin of the human characters, there was obviously a specific artistic perspective put into this particular style of animation. It is undeniably the aesthetic of Anderson. The animation enhanced the raw and peculiar essence of the film, creating a world that is entirely its own.

Isle of Dogs, although not without shortcomings, exposed me to a world, language and culture that I previously may not have been exposed to, including that of the world of dog lovers. Anderson may have made this cat person into more of a dog lover through his charming representation of dogs as the literal “underdogs,” whose journey unveils what it really means to be “man’s best friend.”