wes anderson isle of dogs

Bad Dog! What Doesn’t Work

There has been a much-talked about, and important, conversation surrounding Isle of Dogs, and what many perceive to be its cultural appropriation. /Film’s own Hoai-Tran Bui wrote an excellent piece wading into this particular topic, saying: “It’s not the fact that Anderson deigned to pay homage to Japanese culture, or that his fairy tale version of Japan intentionally mocks or belittles the culture. It’s that his vision of Japan descends from a long history of cultural inventions that have historically insulted and mocked Asian characters.”

Anderson chose to set Isle of Dogs in Japan, primarily to pay tribute to the films of Akira Kurosawa. “This is definitely a reimagining of Japan through my experience of Japanese cinema,” he said. I actually give Anderson the benefit of the doubt here, and I truly think he didn’t intend for Isle of Dogs’ depiction of Japanese culture to come across negatively. That said, there’s a very real sense that Isle of Dogs is treating Japanese culture, and its Japanese characters, as a punchline. Whether or not this was intentional on Anderson’s part is irrelevant. The audience I saw the film with cracked up several times at the way the film presented its Japanese characters – and this laughter irked me, because it felt as if these individuals were laughing at the characters, not with them.

What makes this all so frustrating is how avoidable it was. For one thing, there’s almost nothing in this story that anchors it to Japan and Japanese culture. In other words, Anderson could’ve set the film in New York City and it would virtually the same story – while bypassing the apparent cultural appropriation. That said, if Anderson felt the story must be set in Japan, he should’ve worked to ensure Japanese culture wasn’t the butt of a joke.

The worst misstep on Anderson’s part is by figuratively not letting the Japanese characters speak for themselves. Rather than provide subtitles for the Japanese-speaking individuals in the film, Anderson employs a running joke about a translator, voiced by Frances McDormand, providing the audience with an English translation. Often, McDormand’s narration will drown-out the Japanese being spoken – in a sense, Anderson is robbing these individuals of their own voice. This whole idea comes across like something that perhaps looked funny on paper, but backfires when employed in the film.

These unfortunate moments aren’t a constant thing, but they reoccur enough to hurt the film. Just when you’re settling into Isle of Dogs’ otherwise lovely wavelength, it doubles-down on its goofy treatment of Japanese culture, and leaves a bad taste in your mouth in the process.

Pacing is the film’s other key issue. At 101 minutes, Isle of Dogs feels overly long. The narrative sags considerably, primarily due to a lengthy flashback sequence that arrives late in the film. While said flashback is essential to the story, it has the unfortunate effect of derailing the momentum previously built up.

Isle of Dogs anderson

The Middle-Ground

Isle of Dogs left me frustrated. There’s so much here to love and cherish. Indeed, there are emotional beats in this film that I suspect will linger with me for the foreseeable future. And yet, through it all, there’s the near-fatal miscalculation on Anderson’s part in the handling of the cultural elements of the film.

Perhaps Isle of Dogs’ greatest achievement is that it’s a much-needed reminder that some films exist somewhere between fantastic and woeful. The modern approach to films – especially in the case of online criticism via YouTube critics – seems to fit a film into one of two categories. Either the film is amazing or garbage. There’s no in-between. In this particular mindset, a movie can apparently either be the best movie ever made or the worst movie I’ve ever seen.

But that simply isn’t true. Films contain multitudes, and sometimes, a movie can have both excellent, laudable elements and also scenes that just don’t work. Isle of Dogs exists in this area. It gets so much right, while also getting so much wrong. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth our attention.

At the very least, you should be able to take comfort in this truth about Isle of Dogs: they really are good dogs.  

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a staff writer and critic for /Film, and the host of the 21st Century Spielberg podcast. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at chris@chrisevangelista.net