Isle of Dogs has depth, a big heart and a timely message

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Isle of Dogs
Opens April 22
4.5 out of 5

The backlash to Wes Anderson’s new stop-motion film Isle of Dogs is baffling. “Orientalist!” shriek its detractors. “Tone deaf!” “Why does there have to be a white American girl in this movie at all?”

“Why are all the main dogs male?” “Why dogs, not cats?” “Why Japan of all places?”

Oh my god, people. What do you want, movies by committee?

The truth is, Isle of Dogs is fantastic. Beyond Anderson’s impeccable technical and aesthetic prowess (the world’s depiction is so painstakingly detailed it’s awe-inspiring), the director delivers an endearing plea for acceptance and tolerance. It’s baffling how many critics overlooked the most obvious message in favour of hunting for transgressions like they were Easter eggs.

I’m very much on the left of the film critic spectrum and even I find this level of activism annoying. I hate the term “snowflake” and it pains me to say it applies here, but the snowflakes should check themselves. No form of artistic expression should be restricted by fear of stepping on a few hypersensitive toes. Take for example the recent Death Wish remake: of course it has an irresponsible pro-gun message. That was the least of its problems. The new Death Wish was a mediocre, by-the-numbers revenge flick far more bland than the Charles Bronson original made 40 years ago. I wish it had the courage of its toxic convictions because then it might not have sucked..

Back to the infinitely superior Isle of Dogs.

Twenty years in the future, the mayor of Megasaki — whose family has a historical axe to grind with canines — bans all pooches from the city during an outbreak of “snout fever”, a dog disease the authorities warn may find its way into humans. But not everybody’s willing to take the mayor’s word at face value. A group of scientists, a school newspaper and a spirited kid named Atari defy the official narrative.

For Atari, the stakes are personal. He’s literally got a dog in this fight — name of Spots — so Atari breaks the rules and makes his way to the island of exiled dogs to search for his lost pet. He’s helped on his mission by a pack of pooches led by Chief (Bryan Cranston), a wary stray.

You may get the impression humans drive the plot, but Isle Of Dogs is mostly told from the animals’ perspective. The main story arc belongs to Chief, whose well-established distrust of humans slowly gives way to gruff loyalty. His gang and the other island dwellers are delightful in limited screen time: Edward Norton as Rex, the second-in-command; Tilda Swinton as Oracle, a pug who can watch TV; and Yoko Ono as, uh, assistant scientist Yoko Ono (it’s a triumph of imagination).

I have to complain again. Isle Of Dogs makes the interesting creative choice to have its dogs speak English and the humans, Japanese (without subtitles). This puts some distance between characters like Atari and most English-speaking viewers, and that in turn has triggered a number of people who complain that the result is a racist emphasis on the “otherness” of the Japanese characters. THAT’S PRECISELY THE POINT. Isle Of Dogs’ language tricks draw critical attention to xenophobia — which is rooted in differences (language, skin, culture, species; you name it) — to make the point that overcoming them requires work. The dogs are exiled because that’s easier than curing them and reintegrating them into society. Promising to build a wall is easier than establishing a functional, welcoming immigration system.

The treatment of Japanese culture is inquisitive yet respectful. There’s nothing remotely racist like, say, Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. We should be wary of stereotypes, but Isle Of Dogs’ mix of personal traits and well-documented elements of national identity make for well-rounded Japanese characters, not caricatures.

It’s unfortunate that criticism of Isle of Dogs’ alleged cultural appropriation and American saviour complex (BTW, the exchange student doesn’t save the day, it’s a team effort) have overtaken the discourse. The film is better viewed as a moral call to help those in immediate need (refugees); as a warning against authoritarian figures (seems timely), and as a defence of science — which is always the best defence against the self-serving schemes of snake-oil peddlers.

In a coincidence that reverberates hard, the plan to bring the dogs back is driven by high-school kids. It’s the same spirit you find in the March for Our Lives and in rallies demanding justice for Colten Boushie. There’s power in taking the streets. You won’t change the world with a Twitter fight.

Let’s point the pitchforks at the real enemies. Isle Of Dogs is on our side.