Staring at the Screen: Isle of Dogs

Dearest reader, hello! Thank you for being ‘you’, and may you continue in your becoming to be that ‘me’ as we keep crossing paths, ‘cause it’s so good to be seen by you. Welcome to another STARING AT THE SCREEN where I take the elevator towards entertainment and tell ya'll about it. Trust me, dear reader, you’ll certainly want the lift of the gift for Wes Anderson’s latest and aaaaallllmost his greatest film, ISLE OF DOGS. I personally rolled a half sativa, half indica spliff for the journey to Landmark’s E St Cinema with two CHOCOTENANGO bars, Puro and Happy Medium, to sneak as a snack. You don’t have to do as I do, as you’re you, but this combination definitely enhanced the experience of a night at the theater for me.

BEFORE WE GET OUR LEASHES TANGLED, this movie has not been met with the same open arms and smiling faces of Wes Anderson’s last critical and financial success, BUDAPEST GRAND HOTEL, criticism I am aware of, and having stared at the screen while ISLE OF DOGS was projected, I will discuss in this piece. Admittedly, I was unaware of all the criticism until after the viewing. I fear that many of the articles written on ISLE OF DOGS condemning its portrayal of a foreign culture and its use of a female lead as a prop for the male protagonist were written prior to viewing the movie, but that’s a stoner’s speculation; season with salt. Is this movie racist/xenophobic/someotherwordthatpitsprejudiceonpeople? Is this movie misogynistic? Many have called it so, and I’ve heard a few of the voices in the echo-chamber, but what is the story here?

ISLE OF DOGS, a literal play on ‘I love dogs’, is at its core, and at its best, simply that; a movie staged like a play about loving dogs. More specifically, the story is about a 12-year old Japanese boy named Atari Kobayashi, the adoptive son of Mayor Kobayashi, a cat-loving, dog-hating ancestor of an ancient lineage of cat-loving, dog-hating rulers. Atari steals a plane and crash-lands on trash island where his Uncle had every dog in Nagasaki exiled, including his dog Spots, who was the first to receive this fate. Once on the island, Atari is aided by a pack of five dogs led by Chief to help find his missing best friend.
UNFORTUNATELY, the movie isn’t just a sweet, clever adventure story, which for about 40min in it is, and it’s wonderful. Alas, no, Wes and company just couldn’t restrain themselves and threw so much at a movie that was perfect in its simplicity. Some of the criticisms I feel are lost in translating the experience of the movie making ‘bad’, underwhelming, and unnecessary moves. For example, in my experience and opinion, the movie takes its turn for the lame when the side character Greta becomes a love interest just for the sake of a trailer punchline, “Darn it. I have a crush on you.” Too many cliches follow to keep what was clever still connected to the adventure. Expressed beautifully in a combination of stop-motion, hand-drawn, and computer animation, the last thing this movie needed was to be grounded in unnecessary modern cinema tropes, like the love interest. The relationship between a dog and its human is written brilliantly, but unfortunately, ‘a boy and his dog’ gets lost in romantic and political nonsense.

I will argue that the clumsiness of execution, regardless of intention, will ruin anyone’s fun, although there are always exceptions. Pro-Wrestler Titus O’Neil falling head over tits at WWE’s Greatest Royal Rumble in Saudi Arabia a few weeks ago was a failure to execute the intention of running to the ring and not sliding underneath it, but that clumsiness stole the show. The criticism of sexism in ISLE OF DOGS is based on a female character that, in my opinion, didn’t need any more screen time or dialogue than the ‘hacker’ character who was her classmate. In fact, the movie would have been much better without her or the whole subplot of a political conspiracy against dogs. SO, in my opinion, not even having this female character would have made the movie better, but it would have been without a female character in a movie with very few as it is. To avoid this, maybe they, the writers, threw in this character Greta, arbitrarily made her an exchange student, and white, but so what. She may have Bolivian in her, we’re not told her ancestry. Regardless of how women are represented in the world off-screen by this imaginary female, her absence, in my opinion would have been welcome. That doesn’t say anything other than the inclusion and promotion of this character made the movie less than it was 40min prior. Easy to feel like something is wrong with the character when the vibe turns with her screen time, and critics are looking for reasons that make sense to their intention for even writing about the movie, many as they may be. Without this character, the movie would have been shorter, and so much better. I doubt there would have been any criticism of her absence, but since she was present; Atari is 12years old, Greta is, like, 17. WHAT 17 YEAR OLD GIRL EVER IN HISTORY HAS FELT ROMANTICALLY ABOUT A 12 YEAR OLD BOY?! Exactly; absolutely none!

Throwing a love interest into this for Atari was a big mistake on writer’s Anderson, Jason Shwartzman, Roman Coppola, and Kunichi Nomura. Even the love interest subplots thrown in for the dogs is saved by their use of the words ‘mate’ and ‘mating’, but could have been fine without that as well, but because it’s dogs, it works in its favor. A bit of LADY AND THE TRAMP is ‘paid homage’ in a scene between dogs Chief and Nutmeg, it’s cute, and though we learn nothing about Nutmeg in this scene, we learn about Chief. Could we have learned this information without the flirtatious setting? Are the female characters one-note in this movie? Absolutely. Even further for the sake of the story being told, unnecessary. But at least they’re there? Had they been absent, I don’t think many would be outraged that no female characters were ‘leaders’ in a movie about a 12 year old boy wandering trash island with a pack of dogs. And had the female characters been written well, and Greta NOT been inserted into a romance angle, there would be no mention of the gender inequality, but since it came across as an afterthought, and the women are indeed just for ‘mating’, that was a mistake on the filmmakers. Not for having issues with women, but for poor writing and storytelling. When a character is not necessary to the story, which Greta is not at all necessary, the very presence of the character will negatively affect the story. Critics, why didn’t you like this movie as much as you wanted to? It’s not the sexism of the writers, just their mistakes as writers. On to their next mistake.

The dog-hating government has been lying, killing, and propagandizing anti-dog rhetoric and laws that get way too complicated. The set up is fine, and the situation as the audience is thrown into it is fine, and complicated enough to make sense. This conspiracy sub-plot grows exponentially later in the movie, and was possibly inserted late in the game to be ‘topical’, detracting so much from the experience, in my opinion, making the movie pretty pedestrian. Another writing mistake that takes a unique, clever, cute, sweet, quirky, fun movie and makes it bland, and way longer than it needed to be. By the film’s end, all the political stuff is used to build-up the big-bad who does good in his last moments though the protagonist was going to ‘win’ anyway, so what was the point? The romance and political angles made the animation even forgettable in the last third of the movie, which is such a shame.

As for other criticisms in the crit-o-sphere, cultural   insensitivity/appropriation/lampooning have come up. The setting for the movie is Japan, 20 years into the future. Why Japan? Well, critics, why not Japan? When stretching the American imagination, Japan seems to have worked great in LOST IN TRANSLATION, BATMAN BEYOND, BLADE RUNNER, AKIRA, okay so Akira is Japanese, but would it stretch the imagination as much if it was in St. Louis?! Remember when Godzilla was set in New York City? Not quite the same memory of every time he stomped foot in Japanese cities. My point being, Wes Anderson has placed movies in ‘Budapest’ and India for the very reason of suspending the disbelief of the audience and immersing them in a fairytale that takes place far far far away. I feel Anderson and Co. are not at fault for feeling that these places are far far away, and I also feel that there is nothing wrong with expression of perspective on places far away. Is it weird that Mayor Kobayashi says, ‘Respecto?’ Yes, but the whole movie is weird. Is it fun that the story is told in different ‘languages’? Definitely. The movie is not saying tee-hee as it sneaks these things in, rather letting the audience know right up front how this will work; all humans speak in their native tongue, sometimes translated in different methods, sometimes not, and all barks have been translated to English. Is it cultural appropriation to set a story in a foreign culture? Debatable? Maybe? I didn’t see that in this film, even though the main character is called ‘Atari’, but when the movie just starts throwing things at it, depicting the country’s politics and leaders in a bad way, and its subplots unnecessary, and too loose, for the story, the film opens itself up to criticism, and hey, that kinda criticism is HOT in today’s America. It’ll get some clicks (thanks for reading! ;) Is it culturally insensitive? I don’t think so, for what my opinion at this time means, but again, had the movie just been about the boy getting his dog, no complicated conspiracies, no romantic nonsense, just the question, “Whatever happened to man’s best friend?” I don’t think any of these rumblings would be heard in discussion of the movie. In fact, I think everyone would have loved this movie, had the writer’s not funked it up.

An all-star cast, INCREDIBLE animations, and for the first few ‘chapters’ of the movie, it’s phenomenal. Had they known when to stop throwing things at a story needing so little, this would have been his best yet. ISLE OF DOGS could have been HUGE, and a classic that generations could cherish, B-U-T, all the above got in its way. Is it worth seeing? YES. Will its short-comings bum you out and maybe even offer room for offense? There is a good chance. Don’t be afraid to walk out to the rest of your night after the bad ‘crush’ punchline or the fake-out finding of Spots. In my opinion, you’ve stared at the best stuff in the movie, and that stuff is excellent! What do you think of Wes Anderson? What are your favorite films of his? COMMENT BELOW! Until next time, friends, care about what you stare at when you sit in front of the screen. 

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