In a similar way that writer/director Wes Anderson’s previous feature, The Grand Budapest Hotel, seemed to spring forth from his current obsessions with filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch and the writings of Stefan Zweig, his most recent effort, the stop-motion animated Isle of Dogs, feels as if it springs forth from a more recent deep dive into Japanese film, art and science fiction.
And while it’s certainly easy to get lost in the artistry and dry humor that is the staple of all of Anderson’s work, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that he is dipping his toe into this culture because he finds certain aspects of it exotic, rather than fully embracing its nuances and rich history. This is not to say that Anderson’s film is somehow insulting—although I don’t think I’m qualified to make that determination with authority—but there are elements to the film that I found strangely (perhaps unintentionally) insensitive, in ways that Anderson’s films and characters normally are not.
Let’s start with the basics. The set up of Isle of Dogs (above all other things, the film is a love letter to these loyal creatures, thus the pronunciation “I Love Dogs”) is that a canine illness has spread throughout Megasaki City in Japan, and Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura, also given a story credit on the film, along with Anderson, Roman Coppola, and Jason Schwartzman) signs an executive order to have all dogs banished to the nearby Trash Island. The island is basically a garbage dump where dogs must now scavenge for food as they sneeze and lead generally miserable lives. One of the first dogs exiled was Spots (Liev Schreiber), the dog of a 12-year-old boy named Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), the mayor’s orphaned nephew. Unable to live without his faithful companion, Atari steals a small plane and flies to Trash Island to find him.
Done in a similar, but perhaps cleaner, animation style than Anderson’s 2009 treat Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs makes some interesting storytelling decisions, including having all of the Japanese characters speak in their largely untranslated native tongue. When they are translated, it’s through a broadcast interpreter (Frances McDormand), which begs the question: Is this Anderson honoring the language or distancing the audience from the Japanese characters?
Although when things aren’t translated, it’s usually easy to get the spirit of what’s being said. On the other hand, all of the dogs in the film speak English (and don’t seem to understand Japanese or any other human language). So when Atari (dubbed “the Little Pilot” by the dogs) crash lands on Trash Island, the pack of dogs that find him eventually figures out what he’s there for and agrees to help him look for his lost Spots. Bryan Cranston voices Chief, the leader of the pack and a stray with a painful history that has made him aggressive and angry at the world. He’s accompanied by Edward Norton’s Rex, Bob Balaban’s King, Bill Murray’s Boss, and Jeff Goldblum’s endlessly gossipy Duke. Quite frankly, there are no better moments in the film than when these five are just shooting the breeze.
The film might be looked at by some as Atari’s hero’s journey, but that doesn’t quite hold up since Anderson is clearly telling this story from the dogs’ perspective. Back in Megasaki, scientists are on the verge of a cure for the canine flu, which doesn’t sit well with the mayor who has a secret agenda to make cats the only pet option in the city once again (an amusing prologue tells of a time long ago when cats were the dominant pets in Japan and how they were usurped by dogs over the years). The mayor and his henchman, Major-Domo (Akira Takayama), take steps to ensure that the antivirus never gets released. There’s also an odd subplot involving a rebellious American exchange student (Greta Gerwig), who seems determined to make sure the locals don’t forget their once-beloved fleabags and rise up against the dictatorial mayor. Having the loudest voice of dissent be a white American seems like a dicey concept at best, and it certainly underscores a diversity trend in Anderson’s work.
As the dogs and Atari journey to where they believe Spots is, they meet many other canines of varying temperaments along the way, including former show-dog Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), the wise pug Oracle (Tilda Swinton), and others voiced by Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham and Fisher Stevens. Additional human voices are provided by Akira Ito, Ken Watanabe, Yoko Ono and Courtney B. Vance, who narrates the entire affair. As much as the way Anderson manifests his Japanese influences here may bother some, I was more taken aback at a sequence in which Chief, a black-furred dog with white spots, is given an impromptu bath, and it turns out that he’s actually a white dog with black spots. After this moment, he becomes much more docile and less aggressive. The subtext may be accidental, but there’s no avoiding it either.
Moments like that disappoint me more than outright offend me. Anderson is a smart filmmaker who carefully, specifically chooses every detail of his movies, so it’s hard to understand how he misses how such a visual might be problematic. The artistry on display is undeniable, and the animators on Isle of Dogs are the real heroes of this movie.
I fully get that Anderson’s films have never been about pleasing people; that’s part of what makes him one of the most distinct voices of his generation of filmmakers. Sometimes, he’s pushing limits to make us uneasy and question the comfort level we’re used to feeling in a movie theater. In the end, I’m recommending the film because the lovely animation and the humor ultimately win out over everything, but this one may be tougher to revisit years from now.