Review: Isle of Dogs

Setting expectations for art is unfair, but unavoidable. It's simply impossible to look at promotional material for a movie and, based on past experiences, determine whether you'll like something prior to watching it. This has its benefits - sometimes movies you expect nothing out of have more potential to surprise you. In spite of that, the most common outcome is disappointment, which is a feeling I had coming out of Isle of Dogs.

To make myself clear, Isle of Dogs is a wonderful film that I enjoyed quite a lot. The characters are all charming, the direction is pitch perfect, the voice acting is perfect, the story is well paced and easy to understand, and the stop-motion animation is possibly the best I've ever seen. Wes Anderson's stylistic symmetry brings an order and beauty to Trash Island, a place completely devoid of order and beauty, with meticulous framing and character motion. While Fantastic Mr. Fox seemed to always draw attention to the fact that it was animated, Isle of Dogs is more focused on preserving the illusion that it is not, creating a real, living world consisting of wild dogs and Japanese aesthetics. The movements of the characters are incredibly fluid and natural-looking, and the attention to detail when it came to subtle expressions motions helps you sympathize with what are essentially moving puppets. This movie feels fantastical, imaginative, funny, heartwarming, cute, and impressive while incorporating themes about the dangers of xenophobia and the power of empathy.

On another note, one issue that I can see many people having with this movie is how Japan is portrayed and used. The Japanese is generally untranslated while the dogs "bark" English, which I believe was used to endear us Americans to the dog characters, since most Americans can't understand what the Japanese people are saying except for a few key phrases. While there are definitely problems with the othering of Japanese people this way, I do not think it was meant to be harmful, and the only time it starts feeling uncomfortable is when Greta Gerwig's character, Tracy Walker (an American transfer student living in Japan), is used in the plot. I think the film could have easily replaced her with a Japanese schoolgirl and came up with a creative way to translate her actions, as it would have given us more insight into the Japanese working class and an opportunity for a Japanese voice actress to shine on a global scale. Some good candidates would have been Kana Hanazawa or Tomoyo Kurosawa, since they're both very talented and experienced with animation. However, I am not Japanese, nor Asian American, so it is very likely that others will have a different opinion than I do.

In spite of its many positives (regardless of how Japan is portrayed), I did mention that I was disappointed earlier, and I can attribute that to numerous factors. Firstly, this film is more oriented towards children than any other Wes Anderson film I've seen, which took me off guard. The message is rather obvious and the characters are oversimplified, which isn't inherently bad, but it did feel different and didn't leave much to interpret thematically. Granted, that's what I thought about Fantastic Mr. Fox before I watched it again, so maybe I'll find more aspects to appreciate during my next watch. Secondly, I do think I went into the film expecting too much. The Grand Budapest Hotel is one my favorite movies, and expecting Wes Anderson's next movie to be of that same quality is asking for too much. My feelings of disappointment did fade after a few hours, so take that for what it's worth. In the end, Isle of Dogs was definitely worth the wait - it's not as profoundly strange as Grand Budapest or as sneakily subtle as Fantastic Mr. Fox, but it has the same heart that something like Moonrise Kingdom has, which is praiseworthy in and of itself.