In the not-too-distant future Japan, an epidemic of dog flu causes a quarantine of all and any canine throughout Megasaki City, exiling them to Trash Island. One boy, Atari Kobayashi, will stop at nothing to return his best friend Spots back home.
Of course I enjoyed this. It’s Wes Anderson and stop motion animation. About dogs. That’s three of my favorite things right there. And the title’s a pun, that’s awesome. Not to mention, all of the little subtleties within the narrative that speaks volumes about the various themes of the
But first, the bad stuff.
Upon a simple googling, the topic of cultural appropriation and stereotyping popped up quite a bit, so I’m going to explain my views on this, the best that a white-cis-straight-middle-class-American can.
It is true that even though it’s set in Japan and many characters speak Japanese, the main cast is predominantly white, thusly advancing the plot the most.
This effectively “others” the Japanese cast, resulting in villainous Japanese and white heroes, that is, if you count the dogs as white.
My immediate response is that dogs don’t have a race other than dogs, so on the voice-acting part, I don’t think that main cast makes a difference: they speak common. The whole movie deals with themes of miscommunication and finding understanding. The language barrier isn’t treated as a joke or anything of that nature. (If anything, it’s hilarious to have puppies sound like babies.) The real trouble is the only American character, Tracy Walker.
Tracy acts as a leader for the rebels against the pro-cat regime. Unfortunately because she is white, she stumbles into the “white savior” role. It could be argued that she is a characterization of the idea that folks of different cultures can learn from/help one another through understanding, but that is a very rough sell.
I honestly believe that those parts of the plot could have been re-written so it were less dialogue-based. Even though I don’t speak Japanese, it wasn’t hard to figure out what was happening on the villains’ end, so there’s no reason why our little scientific revolutionary couldn’t have been Japanese.
Another argument is that Japan serves as just a backdrop for this film: not having any weight to the plot, but at least feature old-timey Japanese staples (samurai, sumo and taiko drums). Albeit, these staples still hold influence today – and it’s not like there aren’t historical fables in western films (and it can be argued that Isle of Dogs is like a reverse Hachikō).
Additionally, I have seem some folks mention that the use of mushroom clouds is in bad taste, but I don’t believe this was intentional – I think it was just a large boom for the sake of comedy, and there many ways it could have been much worse. Personally, I think this film is only offensive if you’re looking to be offended.
Now that I’m done with that heaviness, this movie really is delightful. Amazingly, no animal gets killed – that’s a Wes Anderson first. It’s a story of a boy and his dog as well as understanding and change, and it is wonderful.
Just look at this trailer.
At first glance, I fell in love: the stop-motion mixed with a gorgeous cover of one of my favorite songs made my heart and imagination soar. Not to mention the hype in more recent ads, commending the film’s beauty and depth – I was stoked, to say the least. Alas, I left my seat feeling …well, underwhelmed.
It’s strange to have a Japanese story with a predominately white cast – well, maybe not strange, after all, this has been happening for decades, why stop now? (Despite his appearance in the trailer, George Takei had maybe five lines.)
Though I do have to say that the film is objectively lovely – an absolute spectacle, but suffers under the weight of its own mythos; I found myself begging for more mysticism and lore, but I was only met with the same run-of-the-mill lessons of the importance of story-telling and familial commemoration. Not that these things aren’t important, but maybe I was expecting more depth or at least some deviation of some sort – or hey, maybe some sort of recognition of the shamisen’s significance and history?
Speaking of the shamisen, the score and tonality was gorgeous. I’m not sure if it was an issue of time or studio restrictions, but I would have appreciated this film a lot more if it revolved around more myth and magic – I want to know how Kubo learned about his gifts and if and how he was taught these abilities.
And as I mentioned, this is a spectacle – especially in 3D. Director Travis Knight and Laika are no strangers to the third dimension, and they work to capture the potential of this extra space. After all, this is a physical, hand-crafted medium, and I think that deserves some extra respect.
I felt pretty divided at the end of this one. It was lovely, but needed a lot more oomf. There’s a lot of heart to be had, but stops short of definition.
Oh boy, who doesn’t love a list?
Lately, when I’m not working or playing videogames, I’ve been drifting around YouTube for just random things. When it’s not cats, creepypasta, or children falling over, I find some nice short films to watch. So here’s a list of four short films, in no particular order, that I’ve found to dub creepy, but nice.
He Took His Skin Off For Me
2015, Directed by Ben Aston – 11mins
Behind this gory facade lies a lovely tale of the sacrifices we make for loved ones, and the love we show and return. Sweet, intimate, and at times, uncomfortable, He Took His Skin Off For Me is a lovely metaphor for trust and vulnerability – not to mention how far we’re willing to go for the ones we love.
2012, Directed by Pablo Larcuen – 9mins
This is a movie that genuinely melted my heart to the point that it was oozing from my eye sockets. Elefante is the tale of Manuel, an average pencil-pusher who hates his job, his only friend, and struggles to be loved by his family. Things only get worse when he discovers that he’s turning into an elephant. Just watch and see.
2015, Directed by Jordana Spiro – 13mins
Oh hey, there’s that word “skin” again. This one’s a little…different. More of a coming-of-age story about isolation, puppy love, and just generally wanting to be accepted. And there’s bad taxidermy, which is a plus.
Death and the Robot
2013, Directed by Austin Taylor – 11mins
This short is beautiful. Two lonely entities discover one another, creating a legacy to change their world, despite heartbreaking sacrifices. Not really “creepy” per se, but nice none-the-less.
That’s all I wanted to share for now. Perhaps I’ll throw together more lists in the future. Have any to recommend? Please feel free to share!
This is a film I came across some time ago. It stuck to the back of my memory and never left. Sadly, it is no longer streaming on Netflix, but you should see it if you get a chance; Adam Elliot’s Max and Mary– an animated tale of isolation, second-chances, and condensed milk. Among other things.
Mary Daisy Dinkle (Bethany Whitmore/Toni Collette) is a lonely Aussie girl who lives with her alcoholic mother and removed father. Max Jerrry Horovitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is an obese 40-something with Aspergers living in New York.
After a mishap with her mother at the post office, Mary reaches out to Max on a whim, with the hopes of gaining a pen pal. Max obliges, and the two strike a friendship which spans years, complete with misunderstandings and ups and downs – without ever meeting face-to-face.
What struck me most about Mary and Maxis it’s odd combination of charm and crudeness – the same sort of traits found in Elliot’s Oscar-winning short Harvie Krumpet. Additionally, there’s something wonderful, magical even, about the heaviness and intangibility of depression and anxiety crossed with such tangible media as clay figurines. Personally, I’m also a fan of more adult-themed stop-motion films (the more that disbands the thought that all animated features are for children, the better).
Perchance this film is not for everybody, but I think that Mary and Maxis at least worth a glance for the dry wit and dark humor.
Next time on What You Should Have Watched, let’s get some Julie Taymor in here.