Wes Anderson has always been a mixed bag for this writer: on the one hand, his films are uniquely his vision — you never mistake a Wes Anderson movie for anything else. He creates often wonderfully quirky characters, settings and situations that occasionally touch on powerful or poignant emotional truths about love, family and humanity. But that’s only occasionally, because his biggest flaw as a filmmaker is the ironic detachment that is ingrained in every single minute of every single movie he’s ever made, a detachment that can lead to either confused laughter or sometimes just boredom.
His best and worst attributes are on full display in Isle of Dogs, his ninth feature and his second stop-motion animation film since 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. That film is one of my favorite Anderson efforts, full of charm, sly humor and, for the director, possibly the most warmth since his brilliant second feature, Rushmore. Isle of Dogs, however, is a different (pardon the pun) animal: while it’s visually incredible and amazingly detailed, it’s only intermittently charming, far too long for such a thin, meandering plot, and walks a thin line between humor and stereotype that is already inciting accusations of misguided cultural appropriation.
The story is told, like all Anderson’s films, in a fable-like manner that’s broken up into chapters and includes voiceover narration. Set in Japan — or at least the Japan that Anderson imagines — the tale begins with the banishment of every dog to Trash Island due to an outbreak of “dog flu,” which not only makes canines unpleasant to be around but can be harmful to humans. The mayor of Megasaki (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) deports his own dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), to the island first as a show of solidarity, breaking the heart of his young ward Atari (Koyu Rankin), for whom Spots served as both companion and security guard. Using the earpiece that both boy and dog wore, Atari ventures in a plane to Trash Island, where he hopes to find Spots among the thousands of other dogs deposited there.
Once on the dismal island — which contains an abandoned amusement park along with literally mountains of garbage — Atari is befriend by a pack of self-proclaimed “scary alpha dogs” (voiced by Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Edward Norton and Bob Balaban) who agree to help him find Spots. Back on the mainland, a scientist (Ken Watanabe) and his assistant (Yoko Ono) have found a cure for the dog flu, but the mayor has his own reasons for wanting to keep that cure under wraps and have the dogs remain on Trash Island — an agenda soon investigated by American student/activist Tracy (Greta Gerwig).
The depiction of Trash Island is superb and, in keeping with the subject, a bit more drab and dark than we’re used to seeing from the usually color-friendly Anderson. But it’s an impressively rendered setting nonetheless and has its aspects of sheer beauty, like a cave make out of colorful, empty sake bottles. His pack of wild canines are also lovingly created, right down to their mangy, dirty fur and watery eyes, and despite their attempts to put up a tough front, they’re a group of bickering pals who still show concern for humans and yearn touchingly for their old lives.
The dogs all “speak” in English (or as the film suggests, translated from barks), while the humans in Megasaki talk only in unsubtitled Japanese, a puzzling choice that keeps the human characters at not just the usual Anderson distance but institutes — unwittingly or not — a cultural gap that paints many of the Japanese characters as the Other. The fact that the most heroic human character outside of Atari is a white American girl only reinforces that, as does Anderson’s deployment of sumo wrestlers and other aspects of Japanese culture in seemingly random fashion. The director attempts to neutralize all this by setting the story 20 years in the future in his fictional town of Megasaki, but then the question becomes: why did the movie have to be set in Japan at all?
The politics — and they’re going to come into play in the movie, which also features allegorical representations of concentration camps and racial scapegoating — may be too heavy for Anderson to brush off with his typical whimsy this time, and his slight story can’t support them either. Nor can it quite sustain the film’s 100-minute running time, with events on Trash Island and Megasaki often feeling padded and pointless.
Luckily, the sheer visual wizardry and simple pleasures provided by the stop-motion esthetic, along with the great voice work from his always delightful cast (especially Cranston as alpha dog leader Chief, Goldblum as the gossipy Duke, and Scarlett Johansson in a small but captivating role as love interest Nutmeg) keep Isle of Dogs moderately entertaining even as Anderson falls prey to a number of his self-inflicted pitfalls. Whether those pitfalls are too much even for Anderson fans this time out remains to be seen.
Isle of Dogs is out in theaters today.