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Isle of Dogs

In January of 1943, there was an animated short titled Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs. In the creation of this cartoon, the legendary Bob Clampett took his animation team to visit a black jazz club in Los Angeles, which was a big deal while segregation was still in place. Clampett also hired popular African-American radio talents to play the three lead characters, though Mel Blanc — per his contract with Warner Bros. — still played all the supporting characters and got sole credit for the voice work. Clampett even hired an all-black orchestra for the climactic musical number. This was a compromise — Clampett wanted an all-black orchestra through the entire short, and the studio wouldn’t have it. Hell, it’s probably safe to assume that Clampett would’ve had an all-black voice cast if he’d had his way. It’s worth stressing that in a time before the end of segregation, not even two generations after the end of slavery, these hiring practices were hugely progressive by standards of the day. The end result, not so much.

Today, Coal Black is primarily known (or forgotten, more like) as one of the “Censored Eleven”, a list of Warner Bros. cartoons so totally and inescapably racist that they’ve been banned from distribution and syndication since the Civil Rights Movement. It’s easy to see why. Looking at the short film, with its grotesque depictions of African-American stereotypes — to say nothing of its revolting attitude toward the Japanese in keeping with most WWII-era propaganda — there’s no possible way that any amount of selective editing could have made this palatable for a post-war, post-segregation America. Of course, it’s not like WB is the only company to disown such reprehensible parts of its history, but Coal Black is seriously bad enough to make Song of the South look like a Spike Lee picture.

What can we learn from this? First of all, this is a case study in how good intentions aren’t enough to create socially progressive media. No matter how much research and sympathy goes into the preparation, it’s useless if the production doesn’t reflect that. Furthermore, making a progressive statement about race isn’t something that can be half-assed. Any hesitation or compromise will take away from the greater statement, coming off as hypocrisy or ignorance. To wit: It’s simply not possible to celebrate African-American jazz music as played by big-lipped clowns in blackface, just as it’s not possible to portray authentic Chinese culture through slant-eyed humanoids in giant straw hats. There is simply no way to defy stereotypes while also playing into them. It can’t be done and it shouldn’t be attempted.

Which brings me to my next point: It’s so much harder not to play into stereotypes with animation, simply because the characters are… well, they’re cartoons. By their nature, cartoon characters are so much more exaggerated in their features and their movements, which means that the result is going to be broad where progressive statements need nuance. Of course, there are exceptions — The Breadwinner, for example, did a masterful job using animation to portray Afghani characters with depth and subtlety. But even then, the characters were pretty broad in places.

So, as a stop-motion animated picture made by Wes Anderson, where does Isle of Dogs fit into all of this?

Like many others, the trailer for this one had me cringing. A primarily white voice cast, directed by one of the most unmistakably white directors currently working today (which is saying something, I know). And the protagonist was named Atari Kobayashi, which makes about as much sense as naming a white protagonist… well, like this.

I took a long time getting around to this one because I was just that hesitant to give it a shot. I didn’t know if I was even remotely qualified to give an informed opinion about the race aspect, the appropriation of Japanese culture, etc. Then again, even a cursory glance of American culture and Japanese culture is enough to show that the two have been cross-pollinating in any number of complicated ways over the last seventy years.

So I sat down to watch the movie and I found that I had been overthinking this whole thing. Granted, I’m a critic, so overthinking is kinda what I’m supposed to do, but still. Let’s take it from the top.

Our stage is set in near-future Japan, specifically in Megasaki City (refer to my previous point about the “Atari Kobayashi” name). All of Japan has been hit with a contagious disease affecting the nation’s canine population, and the virus threatens to infect human life. Though the scientific community insists that a cure for this dog flu is only six months away, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) stirs up anti-canine hysteria among the masses. He signs an executive order and decrees that all dogs must be banished to a nearby uninhabited island made entirely of trash. As a show of personal sacrifice, Kobayashi offers up his own dog (Spots, voiced by Liev Schreiber) to be the first one exiled.

As the plot unfolds, we learn that Spots was actually the sworn canine bodyguard to the mayor’s adopted ward. So it is that six months after Spots’ exile, young Akira (Koyu Rankin) crashes an absconded plane onto Trash Island to try and find his dog. With a piece of the plane wreckage lodged in his head, I might add.

With all of that out of the way, it merits emphasis that the human characters are only one half of the story. In the other half, we have a crew of dogs that find Atari and guide him on his journey. Edward Norton voices Rex, the de facto leader; Bill Murray plays Boss, the erstwhile mascot of a baseball team; Bob Balaban plays King, a dog who specializes in film and TV acting; and Jeff Goldblum is Duke, who somehow has encyclopedic knowledge of every rumor on the island. All of these dogs are more or less reduced to comic relief by the halfway point.

The real star here is Chief (Bryan Cranston), the naysayer of the pack. He’s also the only stray of the pack, by far the most feral and hostile to humans. So naturally, he has this huge transformative arc that’s predictable and more than a little contrived. But damned if it doesn’t work. Seriously, his shared development arc with Atari is such a simple, classic, heartfelt boy-and-his-dog story that it’s almost like the story can’t not work on a visceral level. And for better or worse, that simplicity is really what makes the movie stand out.

Another example: A huge driving force of the plot concerns Mayor Kobayashi and his conspiracy to kill all dogs. In any other movie, the conspiracy to keep a cure for dog flu from ever getting found would be a crucial mystery and we’d gradually get to learn the whos and whys. But this movie literally opens with a prologue telling us a fairy tale, in which Kobayashi’s ancestor gets his head lopped off in a war over dogs and that’s why his entire family line has a blood feud with canines. I’d say that it makes more sense in the movie, but it really doesn’t.

On the one hand, it sucks that our antagonist’s motivation should be so flimsy and absurd that it may as well not be there. On the other hand, this film was very smart in being so up front about its intentions. This was the most surefire way to directly address and defuse all the criticisms about race and cultural appropriations: to show that for better or worse, the filmmakers simply were not interested in making any kind of huge statement on the subject. The story may take place in Japan, but it was never really about Japan. The plot could just as easily have taken place in Hawaii, New York City, Greece, or anywhere else with a bunch of islands and basically nothing would be different.

Incidentally, I suspect this is a huge part of why Kubo and the Two Strings — another stop-motion animated movie with a distinctly Japanese motif — was able to pretty much completely avoid the racial controversy that’s been hanging over this movie, even though it had a thoroughly whitewashed cast. Kubo was so up front with its intentions — made, packaged, advertised, and sold as a spectacular adventure fantasy that had nothing to do with Japan except as window dressing — that there was really nothing left to say about cultural appropriation by the time the film hit theaters. At some point, a story comes to be so far removed from reality that only fictional people are at any risk of being exploited.

But let’s get back to Isle of Dog. Why Japan? Well, for one thing, the Japanese have a rich storytelling history that the filmmakers could utilize in their prologue. But far more importantly, there’s the language barrier. The movie is loaded with Japanese dialogue, and it’s very important to note which lines get translated and how. The need for translation, and the subjective nature of translation, create an inherent barrier between humans that somehow isn’t there with dogs, and that’s a fascinating implicit point. We’re all divided into different cultures and we all speak different languages, but we can all connect with dogs and dogs can connect with all of us.

Ultimately, the movie was only ever meant to be a modern fairy tale. And since nobody makes modern fairy tales quite like Wes Anderson, it works on those merits. Kinda.

Yes, the animation is gorgeous and bursting with personality, but I didn’t like how the human characters’ teeth looked. Something about that design seemed off. Ditto for the coloration of the characters’ eyes, which looked just plain unnatural.

Then we have the voice cast, which is phenomenal across the board… with a few exceptions. I won’t harp too much about how many white people are in this voice cast, since almost all of them are playing dogs and who really cares? That said, Frances McDormand does get a substantial role as a Japanese interpreter, so make of that what you will. Meanwhile, Yoko Ono briefly appears as a character who is inexplicably also named Yoko Ono. Seriously, what the fuck?

Then we have Greta Gerwig as Tracy Walker, a journalism exchange student who takes it on herself to expose Kobayashi’s evil plans. She’s strictly an exposition device. I’ve heard other critics say that she’s a White Savior character, but I’m not seeing it. If anything, her self-important and ineffectual bluster make her far more effective as a White Savior parody. Especially since the climax comes and the antagonists are able to swiftly and easily throw her aside before she can affect the plot in any meaningful way.

Instead, the one who really saves the day is a minor supporting character who gets barely any setup. Seriously, this was five seconds of screen time shy of ending the movie in a deus ex machina. It’s incredibly bad.

Isle of Dogs works perfectly well as a cute and quirky little animated romp. Wes Anderson’s meticulous visual style is still a natural fit for stop-motion animation, and he’s got an undeniable flair for modern fantasy. The actors are well-cast, the animation looks fantastic, and the jokes are quite effective, even if the plot is cellophane.

I’m still not happy with the stupid name choices, but they’re bad in an eye-rolling way, rather than a torches-and-pitchforks kind of way. I’m sure critics and commentators will find something about this movie to be offended by, but personally, I don’t think it’s worth the effort. The film was only ever meant to be treated as a sweet little trifle of a movie, and I think it’s earned the right to be viewed on those merits.

If you just want a cute boy-and-his-dog story that’s fun for the whole family, I can recommend it on those grounds. If you’re looking for a high-profile Hollywood movie that makes some kind of statement about Japan and its culture, look elsewhere.

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