Film

“Isle of Dogs,” a bland, cluttered ‘tail’ of a boy and his dog

*Spoilers ahead*

I was really looking forward to Isle of Dogs.  Really looking forward to it. I loved Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, so I was hoping this film would have the same charm and whimsy. Instead, I was met with one of the most bland, unimpressive and mildly insulting boy and his dog films that I’ve ever seen.

Thank goodness they only charged me for a student ticket at theater so I didn’t have to waste a full price ticket on this.

Isle of Dogs takes place 20 years in the future, in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki. Mayor Kobayashi has banished all dogs to Trash Island after an epidemic of “Dog Flu” spread despite protests from a Professor Watanabe that he is close to finding a cure.Kobayashi’s ward and distant nephew, Atari, escapes to Trash Island to find his dog Spots.

On his journey, he is helped by a group of former pets: Rex, Duke, King and Boss, as well the stray, Chief.

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Back in Megasaki City, American exchange student Tracy Walker suspects that the mayor intentionally created and spread the flu virus and rallies her classmates to protest  Kobayashi.

On its own the premise is very interesting. But the execution was kind of poor.

There is too much going on for a 100-minute movie.

There’s the main plot with Atari, the subplots with Watanabe and Tracy that don’t connect until maybe two-thirds of the way into the movie, several romantic subplots that don’t get any real development… It makes for a very cluttered film with little time for character development.

Only Chief, really have any kind of character arc, and the rest of the dogs are basically indistinguishable from one another. I can think of maybe three things the other dogs do that are of importance. But they have no character arcs whatsoever. They’re are pretty interchangeable. They don’t grow at all during the film. Their worldview isn’t challenged, they have no moral obstacles, and despite being separated from their humans they don’t seem to missing them; they miss their domestic life but not their humans themselves.

Atari, due to not being understood by the dogs, doesn’t get much of a personality or clear arc. And while, he’s an interesting character, but we don’t get to know him very well.

Mayor Kobayashi and his assistant Major Domo aren’t particularly memorable villains. Domo has an interesting design, and Kobayashi does redeem himself, somewhat, but they don’t have any distinguishing personality traits aside from their irrational hatred of dogs.

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Kobayashi and Domo (right)

Tracy is the only character with a strong or memorable personality. The fact that she’s the only white character in the film and the leader of the “rebellion” puts her squarely in the “White Savior” box.

It would have taken zero effort to make her character Japanese. If they wanted a character who could speak English, for the sake of the target audience or whatever, they could have made her Japanese-American.

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Can somebody explain the hair?

The characters aren’t the only thing that aren’t developed enough, certain aspects of the plot don’t get expanded upon enough and therefore don’t make sense. For example, the film never explains why Kobayashi gave his nephew a guard dog if he despises dogs so much and it’s never explained how Atari can seemingly understand the dogs. Or why Atari was the only person willing to go after his dog. This film underestimates the power of love between a dog and their master.

This movie is supposedly about the bond between dogs and their masters, but so many people seem to willingly give up their dogs. And nobody, except for a small handful of students including the only American, are complaining about it, or really doing anything about it. I don’t buy it.

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King and his family.

I don’t care what kind of propaganda was put out; I wouldn’t let my dog be taken to an uninhabited island. I’d hide him, or move to another city where they wouldn’t send him away. And I know others who would do the same.

And that’s just the start of my issues with the film; A lot of people have complained about cultural appropriation in the film due its use of Japanese culture and setting. Watching it, I don’t think Anderson intended it to be offensive. I think he intended it to be a serious kind of love-letter about classic Japanese cinema.

Unfortunately, it comes of as superficial, like a twelve-year-old weeaboo’s vision of Japan, if they preferred Kurosawa and taiko to Miyazaki and J-pop.

There are scenes that definitely pay homage to the classic image of Japan; taiko drummers, sumo wrestling, sushi making and kabuki theater but they don’t really play any role except to reinforce the idea that Isle of Dogs takes place in Japan.

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Concept art of the taiko drummers

Isle of Dogs  was an homage to classic Japanese movies. The film uses a benshi, or narrator, to describe the events of the movie, as well as the background of characters and setting.

Benshi were popular during the era of silent films in Japan. Each theater would have someone who would describe the events to the audience as it is happening and speak for the characters. Even when sound could be added to film, benshi remained popular for a time. However, this is not something the average film goer would know, and I found the use of the narrator to be inconsistent. As a note, I’m also not a fan of narrators in films in general, so it is possible that may have skewered my opinion.

But that is not something the average film goer would know. There is nothing else about the film that necessitates it being set in Japan. The culture is used more as an aesthetic than anything else.

The film could be set in Russia or Australia or Brazil, and nothing plot-wise would really change. I understand being interested in a culture and wanting to feature that in your film. If you are going to set your film in a place other than contemporary day reality, you need a good reason and you need to fucking utilize it. And Andersen doesn’t do anything with it.

While having the humans speak Japanese and the dogs speak English is a good way of putting the audience in the dogs’ shoes, and let Andersen use his distinctive dialogue, it’s not something that might work for Japanese audiences…and there are plenty of other ways that this lack of communication could have been highlighted.

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My biggest issue with the film in general was that everything except the animation style felt so lazy. And, this might be the most controversial of my opinions here but I simply didn’t find the film very entertaining in general. Maybe it was because I already had low-expectations for the film from reading article after article about, but I left the film the same way I left Mary and the Witch’s Flower, : unsatisfied and unimpressed.

The visuals of the film were very nice, and I liked the unique ways some of the situations were depicted, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the rest of the film. The film took itself far too seriously for its plot. If it had been a little more lighthearted or humorous, I would have been able to accept some of the more ridiculous (and insulting) parts of the film because I would know that they were treating them as such.

Quite frankly, I had a better time watching Boss Baby: Back in Business than I had watching Isle of Dogs. At least Boss Baby has characters who share more than half a personality between the cast, and there are some genuinely funny moments. Not to say the show is good, but it’s far more memorable to say the least.

The film does nothing to distinguish itself from other boy and his dog films other than its aesthetic. If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t waste your money watching it in theaters and wait until it comes out on Netflix.

And that’s the scoop!

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Rating: PG-13

Score: 6/10

Available: Limited release. Theaters can be found here

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