Wes Anderson’s newest film, Isle of Dogs, is a great film. I figured I would just get that out of the way before I begin my review. You will have heard much Internet grumbling and whining before you read my review, most likely, but what you read about “cultural appropriation” is ridiculous and nonsensical. Anderson’s film is a respectful homage to Japanese culture, mythology, and rich filmmaking.
One reviewer wrote a scathing piece about Anderson’s “blind spots” in his filmmaking and a Japanese reader responded by reminding the reviewer that he had no idea what the hell he was talking about. That was a moment of truth that Internet trolls conveniently ignored.
All of Anderson’s films steal some of the best pieces of cinema, domestic and foreign, to create delicious confections of the imagination. In each of his films he has triumphed again and again, even while distinctively polarizing audiences with films like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
Isle of Dogs has, in the age of Twitter, turned out to be his most polarizing film since The Life Aquatic. I have to wonder, however, that if our culture hadn’t become so blindly obsessed with Tweeting and updating our Facebook newsfeeds, maybe complainers and trolls would be less loud. It seems that many contemporary moviegoers have forgotten that every great filmmaker utilizes crafts and cultures from all over the world to spin their greatest tales. Quentin Tarantino has his share of critics, but, when he made his Kill Bill films, seamless blends of Kung-Fu films, samurai films, and Blaxploitation cinema, no one accused him of cultural appropriation. Why not? It’s irresponsible criticism. Has Tarantino been racist in his filmmaking? Certainly! Django Unchained and Pulp Fiction are racist at times, but Kill Bill? I digress.
Isle of Dogs tells the story of a boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin) who is living in a futuristic and highly fictionalized Japan where dogs have been banned by the evil Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura). When Atari’s guard dog, Spots (Live Schreiber) is sent to the “isle of dogs,” Trash Island, Atari sets out to find him. Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and Boss (Bill Murray) are all former house pets who live on Trash Island and meet Atari during his search. Chief (Bryan Cranston) is the fierce stray who takes pride in never having a master. He is in love with Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) and joins the crew, reluctantly, as they aid the young pilot in his search for Spots. Chief is the disaffected male protagonist that shows up in every Wes Anderson film, but he’s a dog, and his story is not only funny, but also touching.
I thought Anderson had reached the peak of his artistic perfection in The Life Aquatic and The Grand Budapest Hotel, but in this film he has reached new levels of focus and creativity. The screenplay and story, by Anderson, Roman Coppola, and Jason Schwartzmann (the same team behind The Darjeeling Limited and Amazon Prime’s Mozart in the Jungle), is one of the finest in recent memory. It is funny, witty, light-hearted, and deeply personal.
Anderson also takes new risks in this film: Firstly, Anderson sets the film in a tech-heavy future. I caught myself asking, “Did Wes Anderson make a science fiction movie?” Secondly, this film is his first to make blatantly obvious and important political and social commentary. In an era where our current president complains on Twitter and decides who he believes should be “in” and “out” of our country, the narrative of Isle of Dogs is a welcome one.