Wes Anderson’s meticulous, highly stylized worlds are particularly suited to stop-motion animation, the most meticulous and stylized form of animation. It’s no coincidence that one of Anderson’s best films is The Fantastic Mr. Fox, his first attempt at stop-motion, and now he follows up Fox with another animated animal tale, Isle of Dogs. It’s an eye-popping art extravaganza, with Anderson’s detailed sets devoted to actual mountains of trash, as most of the story takes place on an actual trash island. It’s a testament to Anderson’s devotion to whimsy that even heaps of garbage seem magical and filthy mutts scrapping over maggoty food elicits an “awwww” as puffs of cotton-ball dust rise from the fight.
Set in the near-ish future of 2030, Isle of Dogs takes place in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki, where “dog flu” has run rampant, turning beloved pets into public health risks thanks to “snout fever” and increasingly aggressive behavior. The cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) bans all dogs to Trash Island, but his nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), commandeers a rickety plane and flies to Trash Island to rescue his bodyguard dog, Spots. Upon crashing on the island, a pack of dogs adopt Atari and vow to help him find Spots. The dogs are: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and a stray who tags along, Chief (Bryan Cranston).
Isle of Dogs is undeniably cute, and if you’ve ever loved a dog, I guarantee you won’t make it through with dry eyes. (Although it is also blatant anti-cat propaganda, supported by Big Dog, and I reject the implication that cats are the pet of choice of evil people everywhere.) But if you’re looking at that cast list and spotting a problem, then congratulations, you saw the sticky wicket that Wes Anderson did not (which is kind of amazing as he has been in this culturally sensitive area before with The Darjeeling Limited). Even including Kunichi Nomura in the story process—along with Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman—isn’t proof against Anderson stepping into culturally appropriative waters. You can (and should) read more about that here, here, here, and here.
When I first raised the issue of appropriation in Dogs, the response was very unsympathetic. Partially due to the cult of personality surrounding professional twee person Anderson, and partially because “it’s just a cartoon”. Sure. No one is asking anyone to die on the front lines over this. Just maybe think about it. Think about how Anderson’s obvious influences—Kurosawa, Shōwa-era propaganda imagery and ukiyo-e art, Kabuki, Miyazaki, and, probably, a Japanese commercial Anderson saw in 1989—impact his visuals and storytelling, but also how those influences do not extend beyond the surface.
Nomura’s creative involvement and Anderson’s obviously sincere and loving homage to Japanese visual culture is meant to be proof against criticism, but Anderson’s obsession with detail and visual, while rendering beautiful films with that famously symmetrical framing, makes him the wrong filmmaker to tell stories in someone else’s land. Anderson films are a fantasia of his own making, a meticulously miniaturized microcosm of fancy—let’s call it Andersonia—and his magpie tendency to borrow and refashion make him the wrong filmmaker to visit other, actually existing cultural lands. There are ways to homage Kurosawa and Miyazaki that do not involve a white foreign exchange student (voiced by Greta Gerwig) lecturing all the Japanese people around her on how to be better activists, but Anderson does not find that way in Dogs, because that is a scene that actually happens, multiple times.
Isle of Dogs is charming, and of course, beautifully rendered. It’s enjoyable! But we can still acknowledge when things we enjoy are imperfect, and Dogs is plagued by a culture problem. Anderson’s appropriation is done with real love and affection, but it is still appropriation. And since all Wes Anderson films happen within Andersonia, there is no real engaging with that appropriation. There are only (intensely detailed) images, and a story that doesn’t actually rely on those images to work—Dogs could be set anywhere, it could be in an entirely make-believe land, and not miss a beat. The craft is undeniable, the dogs irresistible, and the story sincere, but Isle of Dogs is still guilty of appropriation.