by Ken Bakely
It’s not that Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is disconnected as a rule, or that the shallow treatment of its themes comes from maliciously realized ignorance. Instead, it’s a sign of a film made out of aesthetic prioritizing, instead of narrative or emotional thoughtfulness. Yet dismissing it with a blanket phrase like “style over substance” is both unfair to the movie and unrepresentative as a whole, because it implies that style is simply a secondary and transparent response to a lack of substance. Instead, the script is more discordant than anything else, filled with parts that are spun around in their own laboratories. Under the banner of stop-motion animation and Anderson’s colorful, symmetrical, linear direction, it’s less a united project of one result and more of a continuous fusion of quality-variant things.
Anderson pressure-packs the first few minutes, creating quick pop mythology relating to a hostile history of canine-human relations in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki. Spinning forward into near-future, the dictatorial Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) demands that all dogs in the city be banished to a garbage island several miles off the coast. It’s in response to a virus causing havoc in the metropolis’s considerable pet population, and most citizens accept their leader’s orders. On the island, a small crew of dogs from diverse backgrounds encounter a small plane crash. The pilot is young Atari (Koyu Rankin), the mayor’s orphaned nephew, who is secretly searching for his former guard dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber).
The dogs are willing to oblige their bipedal guest, but communication is a clear issue, and one of Isle of Dogs’s biggest recurring jokes. A title card informs us that all dog barks have been translated into English, thus giving us a large voice cast, including work from Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum as the core group of Trash Island denizens. Conversely, humans speak in un-subtitled Japanese. This forces the audience into the implied perspective of the dogs. But since the film frequently cuts away to animal-free scenes in Megasaki, featuring Kobayashi’s totalitarian rule and a budding rebellion against him, Anderson is reduced to evoking meaning through broken English scattered throughout the dialogue, and exaggerated gestures that work against his deadpan tendencies.
Issues like this bring out the film’s spotty gesticulations in other respects. Rich establishing sequences, drenching Isle of Dogs in detailed Japanese heritage and cultural allusions from the get-go, fade to the background as the cultural setting becomes exoticized window dressing. I hesitate to join those who accuse the movie of orientalism, because orientalism, like all forms of cultural appropriation, comes from the absence of knowledge or insight in an otherwise well-developed work. Here, it’s purely indicative of scripting clumsiness that, because of the stubborn choice to present the Japanese dialogue without subtitles, the character who leads the resistance against Kobayashi is an American exchange student named Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig).
So yes, Isle of Dogs can rely on its inherent rhythmic flair to move past the ills of lesser storytelling (let’s not even talk about the unintended implications of a plot thread in which the adolescent Tracy develops a crush on preteen Atari). But even so, Anderson keeps things steady and speedy when launching big setpieces and peppering them with dry jokes. There are some amusingly horrific sights when a few of the dogs take a cable car trip into an incineration machine on the island which fails to perform its key task. And the way everything comes to a head in the third act is both as intricate and endearingly manic as the film’s aesthetic pleasures.
A weaker Wes Anderson film serves to explain what turns the wheels behind the set design and cinematography in his most accomplished titles. His best films operate with great effervescence. It’s clear from the sepia-adjacent, romantic runaway bliss of Moonrise Kingdom to the farcical political upheavals in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Isle of Dogs is as beautiful as anything else he’s ever made, but that’s only part of the equation as to why he has permeated the filmmaking scene and spilled over into even the most mainstream of pop culture. You can outline a plot in the Wes Anderson style, in much the same way you can come up with Andersonian dialogue and Andersonian color schemes. But it’s the way that they all blend seamlessly together that elevate his status to the heights it occupies, and it’s the extra push that’s missing here.