You won’t hear a more instantly recognizable name in American independent cinema than Wes Anderson. The Austin, Texas-based auteur has carved out his own corner of the cinematic landscape, filling it with his idiosyncratic style and continued cult and mainstream success. As detailed as he is visually, and as singular in his comedic timing, animation seems like a logical playground for him to explore. In his second stop-motion animated feature, “Isle of Dogs,” Anderson tops himself with a family comedy that is as colorful and entertaining as it is dark and timely, creating an experience that no one else could have dreamt up.
In the near future, Japanese mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) is running for re-election on an anti-dog platform. He creates citywide panic around “snout fever” and “dog flu,” which he claims will be spread by the island’s over-saturated canine population. However, there’s something fishy about all of this, and Kobayashi’s family has been historically pro-cat since the dawn of Japanese history. He orders all dogs to be quarantined on Trash Island, a dumping ground for the physical and chemical waste that his factory produces. In response, Atari (Koyu Rankin), Kobayashi’s ward, pilots a ramshackle plane to Trash Island to find his lost dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). Upon his crash landing, Atari meets a pack of not-so-fierce alpha dogs: the housepets Rex (Edward Norton) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), sports mascot Boss (Bill Murray), TV actor King (Bob Balaban) and the roguish stray Chief (Bryan Cranston). This motley crew of mutts reluctantly agrees to help Atari, embarking on a strange adventure to find Spots across the island.
Somehow, Anderson has usurped his previous highs of imaginatively constructed narratives, fully fleshing out a living, breathing world that serves as a (literally) artificial recreation of our own. Anderson’s use of mise-en-scene makes the animation a huge step-up from his excellent “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” In particular, the lighting is timed in perfect conjunction with the movement of the camera and the edits. Frequent collaborator Alexandre Desplat’s score is propulsive, leaning into the sounds of Taiko drums and clearly riffing off Japanese musicians.
Anderson, in a rare case of a solo writing credit, crafts delightful characters out of his canine heroes. Even single-scene cameos, a frequent occurrence due to the massive ensemble cast, feel fully-formed, most notably Tilda Swinton’s pug Oracle. In terms of language, Anderson makes the fascinating choice to have his human characters speak in unsubtitled Japanese, unless they are translated by an interpreter. As the opening scene states in Anderson’s typical deadpan, “all barks have been translated into English.” These translation choices make for some compelling comedy and serve as one of many excursions into themes of cross-cultural conversation.
Following the lead of his previous film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Anderson continues his thematic deconstructions of the 20th century’s greatest tragedies under the guise of quirky, meticulously designed adventures. While his previous film tackled the period between the World Wars and the rise of nationalism, “Isle of Dogs” sinks its canines into authoritarianism, xenophobia and genocide like they’re a nasty little chew toy. Iconography of dictatorships, corporate corruption and the atomic bomb permeate the film as painful, tangible reminders of their visible toll on the social and environmental structures of the world. Kobayashi is a fear-monger who seeks to deport those he doesn’t like, villainizing them through propaganda — an act that sounds all too eerily familiar. Anderson seems to imply that these forces have not gone away, but have simply evolved to thrive in a new time and place. If they can affect puppet puppies, they can affect us. And if those pups can beat them, we can, too.
Leading up to and after the film’s release, Anderson has been accused of cultural appropriation for his portrayal of Japanese culture. These criticisms, some of which challenge the character of Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), have some validity. Walker, who sports an Angela Davis-esque blond afro, is an American exchange student with an ardent crush on Atari. Walker doesn’t receive any real development as a character and instead functions as a device to push the plot along back home while Atari searches for Spots. Her mini revolution feels like the most appropriative aspect of the film, where a white savior is employed to stir up social change in a foreign land. It feels particularly uncomfortable given Japan’s history of American occupation, which flies in the face of Anderson’s political logic. Still, Walker somewhat works as a broad caricature. She supports Anderson’s blanket statements that seek to broadly denounce authoritarianism and xenophobia, though her specificity is troublesome. Anderson’s treatment of Japanese culture comes across as mostly appreciative, as an excuse to pay homage to the influence he has always borrowed from Japanese cinema.
Is that a good enough reason for his setting? It’s up to you, dear viewer. We all must grapple with these questions in our own way and with our own cultural background, especially as on-screen representation improves in the near future. “Isle of Dogs” allows us to have these nuanced conversations — whether we have them constructively or not is another story. Anderson has crafted another technically flawless, thoughtful and hilarious adventure, one that frankly has a lot of value in its comedy and commentary, as well as its simple sense of adventure. Above all, it’s a classic tale of a boy and his dog — and that’s, arguably, all it had to be. The rest makes it something both worth debating and cherishing.