I was very much looking forward to Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. It took me a while to warm to Anderson’s films, but I fell hard for his stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, even though I first saw it on a tiny screen in a cramped airplane, so the thought of another animated Wes Anderson joint featuring talking animals definitely appealed to me. I was lucky to finally see Isle of Dogs in a magnificent cinema in Florence, Italy – and much of it I enjoyed a lot. The craftsmanship is exquisite, the cinematography inventive and much of the canine characters’ writing and acting funny and endearing.
However, a Fantastic Mr. Fox this ain’t. While the film’s premise is fine, the overall plotting feels like a draft in need of rewrites. The animal characters are quirky and neurotic but they rarely coalesce into something more genuine than the assembly of quirks that Anderson’s characters tend towards at his worst. More than that, though, there is a Tracy-shaped problem that makes you wonder: what was Anderson thinking?
Tracy, an American exchange student and Isle of Dogs‘ main non-Japanese human character, has come under a lot of flak as an example of the White Saviour trope: in a film set in Japan, here’s a white American character who seems to be the one getting things done, visibly and audibly saving the day and the dogs. My own impression of her differed somewhat, at first (and possibly coloured by my liking of the look and feel of the film). Tracy looked to me like a critique of an American stereotype: the loud, brash American busybody who needs to make everything about herself. In fact, while Tracy gets a lot of screen time and lines of dialogue, arguably the film’s hero (though not its protagonist, a role reserved for the dogs) is Atari Kobayashi, the Japanese boy who steals a plane and flies to Trash Island to rescue his dog Spots after all the canines of Megasaki City are banished there. Similarly, another Japanese boy, a hacker who is a member of the same school club as Tracy, may not get the same attention as her, but like Atari he achieves things, saving the dogs of Trash City from utter extermination. Tracy, meanwhile, makes a lot of noise and certainly seems to believe that she is the white saviour, showing these poor Japanese how it’s done, but in the end her ratio of how much she contributes to saving the dogs and how much noise she makes about it isn’t great. She has one scene where she achieves something, but even that scene shows her to be a self-righteous bully first and foremost.
And yet, and yet. Tracy isn’t the unambiguous, distasteful instance of the white saviour she’s been discussed as, but neither does the film really commit to criticising her, and the half-assedness of the criticism aimed at her makes it worse. Atari is the human character who acts most heroically, who risks his life to save his canine friend. The hacker boy keeps the dogs of Trash Island from being put down by means of poison. The scientist Professor Watanabe is killed for challenging the film’s villain, the authoritarian, cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi, and for developing the antidote that would end the dog flu used as a pretext to banish the canines. Nonetheless, in the end it is loud, obnoxious Tracy who gets the coveted place by Atari’s side, it is she who is feted as a hero. It’s as if Isle of Dogs has forgotten its own ambiguities.
More than that, though, Tracy’s presence seriously harms one of the film’s main conceits: the audience is informed at the beginning that the Japanese characters speak in their own native language, without subtitles, while the dogs’ own speech is translated, for our benefit, into English. This has been criticised as a means of othering and dehumanising the Japanese characters, but the film’s perspective is squarely with the dogs and the linguistic sleight of hand strikes me as a valid, effective way of emphasising this. While I didn’t understand Atari’s lines, I never felt he was diminished as a character or as a heroic figure due to this fact. However, by having Tracy speak in American English, as the dogs do, Anderson undermines his conceit: if we don’t understand the Japanese characters because the dogs don’t understand them (at least other than through tone of voice, facial expression and body language), there’s a logic to this following from the film’s use of perspective – but the character of Tracy renders that logic absurd. The film no longer presents us with the dogs’ point of view, it gives us the point of view of the English-speaking (or perhaps rather American-sounding) characters.
It is impossible not to wonder why Anderson would shoot himself in the foot like this. The material for a better, smarter, more self-aware use of Tracy is there: we repeatedly see her pushing her way to the foreground while in the background Japanese characters actually achieve things. But by making her speak the same language, and indeed the same language variety, as the protagonists, Anderson marks her as a protagonist in her own right in a way that the Japanese characters don’t get to be – and at that point it doesn’t matter that the film sometimes presents her in a critical light. Tracy may be loud and obnoxious, she may be set on making everything about her… but sadly it seems that the film ends up saying she’s right in doing so, as long as she’s happy to share the stage with the dogs. If you’re not a cuddly canine, be pushy, be loud, be American and white – and the film can’t help being about you.