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Isle of Dogs

Few recent films have disappointed me as badly as Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, a film I can best liken to a creaking, malformed skeleton, dressed in the most beautiful fabrics money can buy. That’s a strong statement, and one that I think becomes more damning when you consider that I’m a viewer 100% primed to love this film. I adore animation, the more painstaking and lovingly crafted the better. I don’t know that I exactly love Wes Anderson, but he has produced scripts (The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore, etc) that were capable of making me feel real emotions. I very much like stories that place themselves in the hinterland between child and adult audiences, as this film attempts to do. And as anyone who knows me well will attest, I love dogs. Can’t get enough of them. If a vicious guard dog jumped up and ripped my throat out I would die hugging it.

Isle of Dogs tells the story of… and here I immediately stub my toe on my biggest problem with this film. It has a protagonist problem, which results in the plot feeling messy and uncertain. I can tell you what happens in the film, and what the set-up for the story is, but it’s harder to place exactly who the protagonist is. I described the film as a malformed skeleton wrapped in beautiful fabric, and what I meant is this: the film is a half-baked, first-draft feeling script, on which an enormous team of dedicated craftspeople – artists, animators, graphic designers, miniaturists, musicians, voice actors – have lavished thousands of painstaking hours. Many more hours, I would argue, than the script deserved.

Let’s try again. Isle of Dogs is a stop-motion animated film, set in near-future Japan. A plague is sweeping the nation, and the villainous Mayor Kobayashi blames Japan’s dogs for the plague. By mayoral decree all dogs are banished to Trash Island, an enormous off-shore rubbish dump. The first dog to be banished is Spots – the guard dog of the Mayor’s household – but many more follow. Once pets, the dogs must now fight for survival in a polluted wasteland. We are then introduced to a pack of five dogs – Rex, King, Duke, Boss, and Chief – making a miserable life for themselves amongst the debris. This all changes when a young boy in a light aircraft crash-lands on Trash Island. His name is Atari Kobayashi, and he is the Mayor’s orphaned ward. He has come to search for his beloved dog, Spots. Previously on the verge of giving up on life, the dog pack – with the exception of Chief, who was a stray dog on the mainland and dislikes humans – unanimously vote to help Atari however they can. They set out on a dangerous journey across the island to find out what happened to Spots.

I said that the film has a protagonist problem. It may not seem like it, from the description I gave above. The protagonist seems clearly to be Atari, doesn’t it? After all, Atari is the character with a goal – to find Spots – and who takes the action – flying over to Trash Island – that kicks off the narrative. Without Atari and the choices he makes, there is no story. However, despite these considerations, Atari Kobayashi is not the protagonist. The reason for this is that he does not change as a person over the course of the story. When he crash-lands on the island, he loves dogs, loves Spots especially, and (we assume, since he has no intelligible dialogue) is opposed to the exile and quarantine of Japan’s canine population. At the end of the movie… Atari still loves dogs, still loves Spots, and has successfully ended the quarantine of Japan’s canine population (please note that achieving a goal does not count as character development if they remain the same person afterwards). So if Atari Kobayashi is not the film’s protagonist, who is?

The actual protagonist of Isle of Dogs, so far as I could make out, is one of the dogs, Chief. As previously mentioned, Chief was a stray dog before the quarantine began, and as such, unlike the other four dogs in his pack, he does not like humans. He does not want to help Atari find Spots, believing it is a foolish errand that will get them all killed. Ably voiced by Bryan Cranston, Chief is a loner, the literal black-furred sheep (apologies for the mixed animal metaphors here) of the pack, a character whose outer harshness and physical toughness mask a vulnerable exterior. If you know anything about stories, you’ll already have predicted that by the end of the film, Chief has bonded with Atari, saved the boy’s life on several occasions, and is no longer a bitter loner. Instead he takes the place of Spots, and becomes Atari’s new companion. So far, so good. What’s the problem here? It sounds like Chief is the unambiguous protagonist of Isle of Dogs.  

My criticism here is subjective, but the major issue I had with Chief as the protagonist is that initially he’s very passive. He doesn’t drive the story the way a protagonist should, and it’s not obvious that he’s the main character because Atari confuses things. As I said before, it is Atari who makes the choices that kick-start the narrative. On its own this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Princess Leia kick-starts A New Hope by hiding the Death Star plans and a message inside R2-D2. However, once Luke finds the message, he immediately takes action. Chief, on the other hand, repeatedly refuses to help Atari, and passively follows along when the other dogs in his pack decide that they should. In fact, the very pack milieu we meet Chief in confuses the issue of his prominence. For the first half of the film, he is only one dog amongst a chorus of five canine characters who are constantly on screen. Once he and Atari get split up from the other four dogs, the film changes gears, and it becomes much clearer that the story is centred on Chief and his developing bond with the boy, but I happen to think, when you’re making a charming adventure story, that it’s a good idea to clearly establish your protagonist early. One way to accomplish this without a word of dialogue would’ve been to open with Chief being pursued by dog-catchers, caught, placed into a crate, and dumped onto Trash Island. This would clearly anchor our sympathy with the character, as well as establish how the quarantine works without a voiceover, which is what Anderson resorts too instead.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problems I had with the script. There’s a lengthy and involved plotline revolving around political conspiracies on the mainland, as American foreign exchange student Tracy attempts to prove that Mayor Kobayashi has murdered a scientist developing a cure for the dog-transmitted plague. This storyline didn’t overlap with the Trash Island storyline until the very end, and the overlap – in fact the whole finale – felt flat and perfunctory. I enjoyed the army of dogs invading the mainland, but the big finale is Atari reading out a haiku, followed by Mayor Kobayashi immediately surrendering. Given the incredible kinetic energy animation is capable of summoning, I felt let down and irritated by this static ending. There is a fight on the stage, but I had been expecting a longer chase or some kind of eye-popping action setpiece in the futuristic city.

Another bugbear was the Japanese setting. I have to ask – why? What narrative purpose was being served? Was it just something Wes Anderson felt like doing? The film has been accused of cultural appropriation and insensitivity, and although I’m not certain I’m best placed to make the final judgement on that, the Japanese setting seemed completely extraneous to the plot. I assume the intention was to distance us from the human characters by making them speak a foreign language, whereas all the dogs speak English. However, this is undercut by Tracy and several other American characters speaking perfect English as well. If you wanted to distance us from the humans, why not make their voices sound like unintelligible Sims-style pseudo-language or strange synthesiser chirps? You’d lose out on the political narrative, but I think the film would be stronger for it. There is even an uncomfortable joke centred around the language barrier, when Atari says something exuberantly in Japanese and one of the dogs nervously asks if anyone could understand him. This was not just racially questionable, making a Japanese boy’s speaking voice the butt of a joke, but I was also galled by the film playing fast-and-loose with whether the dogs could understand him or not. Sometimes communication is non-verbal only, and sometimes Atari can clearly understand what they say to him, and vice-versa. This may seem like a nit-pick, especially in a cartoon about speaking dogs, but it bothered me enormously. I think a film about dogs that speak English and humans who are unintelligible has enormous potential narratively, especially because animation is so well-suited to expressive, non-verbal communication. Audiences fall in love with WALL-E without the character ever speaking a word, and Atari could’ve worked the same way. Isle of Dogs didn’t seem to want to settle on one way of presenting the communication barrier, and it changes from scene to scene.

Add to these issues a litany of other, smaller complaints: Why does the dog-plague, the plague that we’re told every dog on Trash Island is infected with, have no bearing on the plot? Chief, Rex, and the others are all sick, but it never affects their behaviour or appearance, nor do they talk about it. We’re repeatedly told that there are feared cannibal dogs at the far end of Trash Island, only to find they’re friendly and Spots lives with them. Anti-climax and reversals are fine, but you should do something interesting with the characters afterwards. The ‘cannibal’ pack seemed to exist only for one scene, which is a great shame, as I felt some nasty dog characters would make great antagonists. Scarlett Johansson voices a female dog called Nutmeg, who seems only to exist in order to have a flirtatious conversation once with Chief and then disappear for the rest of the narrative. Why bother? Does every film need to have a love interest in it? Equally baffling is the motivation of the villain, Mayor Kobayashi. He hates dogs because… his family traditionally hates dogs? The Kobayashis seem to have been allied with Japan’s cats somehow since ancient times, but the cats never have any dialogue or motivation either, which seems like another missed opportunity. Moreover, there’s a backstory hinted at for Atari – a train crash that maybe wasn’t an accident, being adopted by this sinister Mayor figure – that I expected to pay off somehow, but didn’t. What was the point? Why did the Mayor adopt him? Why, having adopted him, did the Mayor – who hates dogs, whose entire family/clan hates dogs, who is taking part in a decades-long conspiracy to rid Japan of all dogs – decide to get a guard-dog, Spots, for his young ward? In what world does that make sense? With such paper-thin motivation, Mayor Kobayashi’s last-minute change of heart when Atari reads a haiku out comes from nowhere, and I kept imagining Wes Anderson thinking “I can’t think of a way to end this script… what if the villain just … gave up? The animators will make it look really pretty.”

And this is the problem. Isle of Dogs is a malformed skeleton of a script, draped in finery. Your protagonist should be clearly established. Your villain should not simply give up because it’s time for the film to end. Cartoon or not, your story’s world should be internally consistent. Characters should have intelligible motivations and scenes should not exist without purpose. Isle of Dogs breaks all of these rules and suffers for it.

I desperately wanted to like this film. It seems like most people and critics did: the film is currently sitting at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. There is much to recommend it. The animation is quirky and textured and beautiful, the character models bursting with personality, the backdrops detailed beyond belief, and Anderson’s visual sense has not deserted him: his scene blocking and framing is as strong as ever. The voice-work is excellent, and the actors’ comic timing is perfect. But this is a script that needed more passes, before it was ready for the big screen. Ultimately, Isle of Dogs has a lot of good looks and no heart. I get very emotional about fictional dogs, and I was not moved. I couldn’t help but think of another animated film with a young Asian boy and a pack of talking dogs, Pixar’s 2009 hit UP, and unfavourably compare the two. A less established film-maker would not have been allowed to produce the script in this state, I am certain. Wes Anderson is a brand, a big name, and judging from this film, it seems that the days when anyone told him “No” (let alone “Beg” or “Roll Over”) are far behind him.