Wes Anderson’s new film Isle Of Dogs is undoubtedly exquisite. With a literal all-star voice cast, gorgeous stop-motion animation brings the beautiful story to life. It’s a story about love, trust, loyalty, and outcasts. Isle Of Dogs ambitiously political. It’s a story of good boys, or boys who didn’t know they were good all along. Just the boys, though. The film fails to grow beyond the white, male lens that is the status quo for American cinema.
The female characters, both canine and human, exist mainly in their relationships to male characters. This isn’t anything new, certainly not in the realm of anthropomorphized animals. Isle of Dogs suffers from the same problem as Watership Down (both book and movie): the female anthropomorphized animals exist only as love interests or mothers. For every Zootopia, there are a couple of Lady and the Tramps and Dumbos. The devastating heartbreak of Turner and Hooch (another great dog movie) is alleviated by the litter of puppies at the end. I would never complain about puppies, but it’s symptomatic of a larger issue.
We give human-like qualities to animals. It’s just our psychology to think highly enough of ourselves that we make others in our image. What does it say when having children is the happily ever after for the characters we create? This isn’t Wes Anderson’s first trip down this path. The joyful ending of Fantastic Mr. Fox is Mrs. Fox announcing her pregnancy. To be fair, that movie was adapted from a Roald Dahl book, but Isle Of Dogs is an original story.
Isle of Dogs takes place twenty years in the future. Anderson has built a complex, admittedly gorgeous world for this story. Those who write dystopian narratives, even dystopian cat narratives, are tasked with creating an entire universe. Women are an afterthought in this one. The human females are love interests or are controlled by their emotions.
It is impossible to discuss the film without engaging in a debate about cultural appropriation. Wes Anderson stated specifically that he wanted to make a movie in and about Japan. The film is heavily influenced by the likes of Hiyao Miazaki, Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Seijun Suzuki, and the monster films of the '50s and '60s. It reads like a love letter to Japanese cinema, and Anderson made attempts to be as respectful as possible by including Kunichi Nomura in the story-crafting process. Chinami Narikawa, a graphic artist, and Erica Dorn, graphic designer of the film, served as consultants and visual sensitivity readers.
In a press release, Dorn said, “The world of Isle of Dogs is kind of an alternative reality. It looks and feels like Japan, but it's a slightly dreamier version, a slightly more Wes Anderson version… So, there’s that feeling of Japan but it’s all filtered through Wes’s own way of seeing.” Anderson has said he never meant for Isle Of Dogs to be interpreted as taking place in actual Japan. The film demands viewers to seriously consider the differences between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.
LA Times film critic Justin Chang writes that although "Anderson's appreciation of Japanese culture is nothing if not wide-ranging" when it comes to aesthetics, his Japanese characters — who only speak Japanese, usually untranslated — are portrayed as passive "foreigners in their own city." He writes, “It’s in Anderson’s handling of the story’s humans that his sensitivity falters, and the weakness for racial stereotyping that has sometimes marred his work.”
There is something unsettling about viewing a place from a singular person’s perspective. Especially a place that has been so misrepresented and underrepresented by white Hollywood. Most of the cast is white, and the only Japanese character that speaks English is voiced by a white person. Isle Of Dogs sets paw into an area that could be called cultural appropriation. Anderson’s intent may not matter in the final verdict, because marginalized people will feel the real effects.
Isle of Dogs is a beautiful film from a white, male perspective. You may cry in a couple of places, because humanity doesn’t deserve dogs. You may roll your eyes in some places, because a girl ending a political rant with the realization that she has a crush is a punchline. Viewers have had to put up with good yet problematic films for decades. In the era of Black Panther and A Wrinkle In Time, we should hold good films to a higher standard and demand more from the stories being told.
Top photo via Indian Paint Brush/Isle of Dogs
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Anna Greer is an editorial intern and a senior at the University of Tennessee, where she studies comics and human rights. When she is not engaged in feminist activism, she usually can be found wearing Doc Martens and looking at Star Wars prequel memes.