It’s been nine years since Wes Anderson’s sublime adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox, but sadly his long-awaited return to stop-motion animation has been preceded by months of suggestions it’s a product of cultural appropriation if not outright racism. Watching Japan-set near-future kid adventure Isle of Dogs I returned over and over to the topic. Is the film a manifestation of Orientalism? Or loving homage? Insensitive, problematic, patronising? Or sweet, classically idiosyncratic Anderson? The answer hadn’t presented itself by the time the credits rolled (and frankly I’m the least qualified to judge) but the sheer amount of time weighing these questions showed the film had failed to grab me by the scruff of the neck – a more immediate problem in its own right.
Undoubtedly, Isle of Dogs is lovingly crafted – as with Fantastic Mr. Fox, stop-motion animation proves a perfect means of conveying Anderson’s aesthetic. But even admiring, and often adoring, the craftsmanship on display couldn’t overcome its meandering, surprisingly even managing to bore despite the plethora of interesting ideas at play.
The look of the film, coupled with distinctly Anderson dialogue and characterisation, distracts from just how damn bleak much of the subject matter is, with animal cruelty and experimentation taking centre stage along with abuse of kids and canines alike. The citizens of Megasaki City are propagandised into compliant sheep; dogs are penned in a concentration camp – everywhere dystopian power is projected through media manipulation and brute force.
Those welcomely sinister elements are balanced by the likeability of a pack of doggos held together by the force of will displayed by Chief (a suitably determined Bryan Cranston). They team up with Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin in Japanese – like all characters speaking in their local dialogue, for better or worse), an adventurous boy in search of his four-legged friend who come together as a team, even if these emotional bonds never quite satisfactorily gel.
That’s a big part of the problem. Isle of Dogs doesn’t have anywhere near the heart of Fantastic Mr. Fox. It’s lovely to look at, but that’s clearly not nearly enough when you find yourself wondering when – rather than how – it’s all going to wrap up.
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