“Isle of Dogs” is great when it’s about dogs, less great when it’s about Japan

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Have you ever watched a movie that just frustrated you? A movie that you would give a mediocre rating but you know for a fact that it is anything but mediocre? A film that had moments and elements that work so well and inspire your imagination and even leave a lump in your throat, only to get bogged down by a few key elements? “Isle of Dogs” is just that kind of movie. The latest feature from film student favorite, Wes Anderson, “Isle of Dogs” is masterfully controlled, meticulously crafted, and incredibly charming. It’s also very uneven, with a specific subplot pointing towards the director’s well-meaning but awkward handling of his minority characters.

The film is set in a near-future Japan, where the government has made the decision to ban all dogs after a disease had turned them violent and rabid. In order to avoid euthanization, the country decides to ship all of the dogs onto a land mass made out of trash, called Trash Island, where they will live out the rest of their lives. Soon after, an adolescent boy named Atari crash lands on the island in search of his long-lost pet, leaving it up to a team of dogs to assist him on his adventure.

What makes “Isle of Dogs” so frustrating is that it features some of Anderson’s best direction to date. This film and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is enough proof for me that the obsessive-compulsive director’s style is much better suited to stop motion. It gives him free range to create any world that he wants with as much detail as he can afford. “Isle of Dogs” allows the director to really explode from the constraints of the real world, dropping us into a near future dystopia that has him at his most creative and inventive.

Trash Island is especially fascinating to look at. The director allows himself to break out of his obsession with single color schemes in order to give the place a more grungy, steampunk inspired look lifted straight from old sci-fi films and video games. The design of the dogs themselves complements the environment perfectly. Their fur is ruffled, their collars detail a history, and their bodies are matted with dirt and blood. In a visually striking resume, “Isle of Dogs” rises to the top.

The storyline is at its most effective when it revolves around Atari and the dogs. Wes Anderson’s style seems much more suited to his latter-day adventures and fairy tales rather than the familial dramas of his early career. It’s a surprisingly touching story too. For such a famously ironic and detached director, “Isle of Dogs” might be one of the most sentimental in Anderson’s filmography. The emotional thrust of this storyline is as old as time: “Dogs are awesome. People should own dogs.” It’s a theme that applies to all ages.

That being said, despite its universal themes, “Isle of Dogs” is one of the more political films in the director’s oeuvre. The parallels between immigration and isolationism are clear, with Japan standing in for America or Britain and the dogs standing in for immigrants and deportees. This is where the director’s detached humanism comes into play: he’s able to take a step back and look at the big, objective picture while still involving us emotionally.

However, there is one major aspect of the story that really bogs it down. There is a prominent B-story revolving around an American exchange student named Tracy (Greta Gerwig). Outraged by the Japanese government’s mistreatment of dogs, she spearheads a revolution, inspiring the Japanese youth to revolt against the government’s unfair policies. This whole section, unfortunately, reeks of white savior tropes.

This trope is more frustrating than other culturally inappropriate tropes because it always feels well-meaning. The anger towards corrupt systems of oppression is sincere, but it always strikes me as pretentious when (typically white) storytellers think that the natives living under said systems wouldn’t be trying to form a resistance in the first place. It’s this idea that America always needs to intervene in foreign struggles that causes so many of the world’s problems in the first place. It feels especially important now to not spread this myth.

Tracy has some other difficult aspects to deal with as well. As a white woman, she sports an afro and constantly uses the black power salute as a form of protest. Keep in mind, the conflict of the film has absolutely nothing to do with African Americans, so the incorporation of these elements feels bizarrely out of place. I’m really not sure what Anderson was going with this story choice: what parallels could he possibly draw between his deportation metaphor and the Civil Rights/Black Lives Matter Movement? The result is a destructive form of generalization. When a storyteller conflates two vastly different issues revolving around two vastly different groups of people, they risk dehumanizing all parties, turning minorities into a grey, lumpy, indistinguishable mass.

It’s saddening that this section of “Isle of Dogs” is so intrusive. Because, ultimately, what we have is a really moving story about a boy and his dog. The politics of the film work best when used as a backdrop for this story. We feel the outrage because we connect with Atari’s struggle. We get swept up in the narrative because we empathize with the dogs. There’s no need for a white character for us to identify with because Anderson is a skilled enough storyteller to involve us in the film from the very beginning. If he had trusted those skills a bit more, the result would have been so much better.

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