Wes Anderson’s handmade dollhouse visual aesthetic finds perhaps its most perfect vehicle yet in the gorgeous and meticulous stop motion lo-fi sci-fi Isle of Dogs. Fans of the Tenenbaums auteur will more than likely be enraptured. Those who find his particular brand of hipster ennui trying, however, are not going to discover anything here to change their minds.
Set in a meticulously rendered version of near future Japan that could never exist outside of the imagination, Isle of Dogs posits a world where Japan’s dog population have been banished to the refuse-strewn Trash Island following a pandemic panic, and a young boy, Atari (Koyu Rankin) steals a plane and crash lands on said wasteland in an effort to rescue his beloved pet, Spots (Liev Schreiber).
The film’s conceit is that we don’t get this from Atari’s point of view, whose dialogue is rendered in untranslated Japanese. Rather, we get it from the ragtag pack of semi-feral dogs who aid him, voiced by the likes of Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, and Bryan Cranston, whose angry, self-loathing Chief is effectively our hero.
Cranston and co., canine though they may be, are your standard posse of neurotic Anderson protagonists, bickering their way across a painstakingly-crafted landscape as they attempt, in their bumbling way, to reunite a boy and his dog. Meanwhile, back in civilisation, American exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig), a driven student journalist, is ferreting out the underlying conspiracy that has led to the dogs’ banishment, a thread of cat-loving political corruption that enmeshes the mayor of “Megasaki”, Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), who happens to be little Atari’s guardian.
Eventually our two plotlines converge, but narrative is not really the object; Isle of Dogs is an exercise in tone, and walks the line between charming and twee like a highwire acrobat. Drawing on half a century of Japanese pop ephemera, from Kurosawa films (keep an ear out for a familiar musical cue) to Taiko drums to post-war model kits, Anderson’s latest is a bento box of a film, aesthetically pleasing in its obvious construction and attention to form and placement – but perhaps a little undernourishing?
As storytellers, Anderson and his collaborators (Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura get story credits along with the big dog on this one) have always been a little scattershot when it comes to theme, pulling in different ideas, notions, and emotional throughlines for their ensembles to act out. His best works have generally had a strong emotional and thematic core – look at The Royal Tenebaums and The Life Aquatic, whose eclectic universes rotate around a central axis of regret and ageing. When that central element is obscured or absent, though, we’re left with only the aesthetic to enjoy – a beautifully constructed work with no clear purpose.
So it is with Isle of Dogs, which steadfastly refuses to settle on a thesis, sometimes giving more weight to one or another notion, but never deciding on what it’s actually trying to say. There’s a redemption theme in angry stray Chief’s arc towards domesticity, but that’s counterbalanced by Spots’ journey in the opposite direction. There are allusions to World War II – the quarantining of the dogs echoes America’s internment of Japanese civilians after Pearl Harbour, while a tribe of mutilated lab escapees is reminiscent of some of the worst Japanese war crimes – but to no obvious intent. Plot elements that deal with political corruption are glibly handled, with the narrative ultimately deciding that hereditary power is a better gamble than corrupt democracy – an interesting take coming from a filmmaker who has frequently been criticised for lionising the emotional issues of rich white people.
And yes, speaking of white people, there’s that whole thing – Isle of Dogs has drawn criticism for using Japanese culture as set dressing, and for effectively silencing its actual Japanese characters by having their speech go untranslated (the film’s dogs speak English – Anderson knows his main market is Anglophone). Whether that’s a dealbreaker is best left to the individual viewer, but it’s certainly worth reflecting on. Anderson’s bower bird approach to sublimating his influences into his work has been noted and lauded in the past, but this is the first time where it’s felt tone deaf, bordering on carelessness. It’s easy to understand why an artist like Anderson would be drawn to the Japanese pop aesthetic – and make no mistake, he works wonders here from a design point of view – but it is regrettable that he didn’t tread more carefully.
While still enjoyable, Isle of Dogs is very much a lesser Wes Anderson effort. More than any of his prior works, this feels mostly surface – which is to say, mostly superficial. It’s a confection of a film, and while that’s very much enjoyable in the moment, it’s not particularly substantial.