You’d be hard-pressed to find a more meticulous and deliberate director working in the industry today than Wes Anderson. It makes sense, then, that he would be drawn to the most meticulous and exacting of filmic forms: the stop-motion animated picture. Anderson first flirted with the style by bringing in legendary stop motion director Henry Selick to incorporate it into The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but it was 2009’s Roald Dahl adaptation Fantastic Mr. Fox that saw him dive headfirst into the world of miniatures and the exacting, exhausting process of a separate picture for every frame of his movie. For the man who loves to turn his live action films into a series of dioramas, the use of stop motion is a natural fit, but outside of a few shots in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson returned to his live action roots for his next films. But in 2015, he announced a return to the realm of stop motion. These things take time, but now, four years after he last had a film in theaters, Anderson’s newest film, Isle of Dogs, has finally arrived.
Set in Japan in the not-too-distant future, Isle of Dogs imagines a fantastical world where dogs have been banished to a landfill island off the coast of the mainland. The country, overtaken by paranoia surrounding an illness that has the potential to cross over to the human population, has turned to cat lover Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) to make Japan a dog-free zone. He begins with a symbolic gesture, sending his ward Atari’s guard dog, Spots, to the trash island first, infuriating Atari (Koyu Rankin) and causing him to go to the island four years later to rescue his beloved pet. In those four years, a roving band of dogs has taken over. Rex (Ed Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and Chief (Bryan Cranston) come across the boy in his crashed puddle jumper, and join him in his quest to find his long lost friend. Back on the mainland, a team of scientists desperately seeks a cure to allow the dogs to once again become man’s best friend, but Kobayashi and his muscle, Major Domo (Akira Takayama) are hell-bent on stopping their progress. It’s up to Akira and his new companions to find Spots and defeat the Kobayashi regime once and for all.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that Isle of Dogs, when spoken out loud, sounds suspiciously like “I Love Dogs.” Anderson seems rather taken by the animal kingdom, as this marks his second animated feature and his second feature headed by animals. It makes you wonder how many of his live action films would be subsumed by anthropomorphic animals if such things were possible. Everything is pretty much as you expect it when it comes to a Wes Anderson movie, be it the familiar voices (Cranston is the biggest addition here) or Anderson’s love for symmetrical set design and shot blocking. The animation is gorgeous and the character design of the dogs undeniably charming (the Japanese characters aren’t nearly as fleshed out, notably). Anderson makes the great call of inserting traditional hand-drawn animation for any screens in the film, a lovely bit of craft that succeeds in separating the reality of the world and what happens on television. It serves a clear purpose too, thanks to the perhaps under-utilized Oracle (Tilda Swinton), a dog who is heralded as seeing the future due to her ability to watch the news. And that sense of whimsy in the face of dire circumstances is certainly intact; the trash island we spend the majority of our time on isn’t the most colorful place, but it has the sort of vitality you’ve come to expect.
That can be either a good thing or a bad one depending on the execution. I was one of the minority not particularly impressed by The Grand Budapest Hotel, a flight of fancy with all the expected Anderson tropes that didn’t manage to say anything of import. The hallmarks of Anderson’s career have transcended the quirks of his visual style to say something of substance. It doesn’t necessarily have to be some grand statement on the human condition, but it has to go somewhere. With Isle of Dogs, Anderson isn’t as unified in his message as he’s been in films like Rushmore or Moonrise Kingdom, but it’s a fair share more cohesive than the likes of Grand Budapest or The Darjeeling Limited. The choice to set the film in Japan ends up rather ingenious in that respect, as is the choice not to translate everything in the Japanese tongue (we only get translations of the Japanese speech when they are translated in the film by a character voiced by Frances McDormand). Because Isle of Dogs is a film about how love, friendship and companionship can transcend language barriers. The dogs cannot understand what Atari says, but manage to bond with him regardless. He even manages to thaw the heart of the prickly stray Chief, the closest analogue we have to a protagonist.
That appropriation of Japanese setting culture doesn’t come without its problems in practice, though.. This film, set entirely in Japan, sure does seem to succeed the most in making Japan feel almost entirely alien. The choice to eschew constant subtitles of the Japanese (which is explained at the film’s beginning) adds to the mystique and provides foundation for some of Anderson's central themes, but it also creates a striking “us versus them” mentality, considering the film is set in the country of the "them". That sense is reinforced by English showing up beyond the scope of the dogs’ speech. The inclusion of the translator (her character seems designed to look Japanese, which doesn’t particularly gel with McDormand’s voice) and an American foreign exchange student hell-bent on saving the canine population (voiced by Greta Gerwig) who immediately takes center stage when she arrives muddies the waters a bit in ways Anderson may not have intended. The aesthetic choice of how language is used in Isle of Dogs might have been able to work if there were only dogs speaking English and everyone else speaking Japanese, but having other characters speak English knocks off the balance. It’s explained at the beginning that the dogs’ barks are translated into English, but they also seem to understand the English of others throughout the film. This would seem to indicate that these dogs, born and raised in Japan as they are, speak and understand English as a language. It just feels awkward and even a tad exclusionary, even if that isn’t Anderson’s intention. When you combine this with the rest of the Japanese culture present in Isle of Dogs, a rather surface-level mix of Kabuki and Sumo and Pagodas and samurai and more than a dollop of references to Kurosawa, it becomes clear that the surface is all we’re getting. It is obvious Anderson wanted to pay homage to Japan and its culture (and especially Kurosawa), but he didn’t do enough to make it feel natural.
Perhaps the best thing to come out of Anderson’s questionably selective cultural appropriation is Alexandre Desplat’s score. A rousing, dynamic mix of traditional Japanese instrumentation and modern orchestral styles. Desplat is one of the most prolific composers of the 21st century, having won Oscars for both The Grand Budapest Hotel (he was nominated twice that year) and The Shape of Water, but he hasn’t produced anything quite like what we have here. Much of his other work could be best described as hyper-competent work that shows movie scores at the height of their powers without straying out of a pretty rigid comfort zone. Here, Desplat honestly feels more at home assimilating Japanese culture and sounds into his score than Anderson is adding it to the other aspects of the film. He clearly looks to Kurosawa for inspiration as well (there are even two musical pieces taken directly from Seven Samurai and Drunken Angel), but it feels more natural mixed in with his original work. More so than any other aspect, Desplat’s score is a reason to go out of your way to see this film.
All told, Isle of Dogs is a fun, quirky and engaging film from Wes Anderson with an incredible Alexandre Desplat score that suffers from a rather myopic worldview. It’s consistently beautiful (like all Anderson films are), wonderfully animated and, from a story perspective at least, it succeeds marvelously in engaging its audience. But Isle of Dogs is a little rough around the edges and shaggy (excuse the pun) in forging its world, holding it back from reaching the heights of Anderson’s best work. There’s a lot to like here, and you can see where Anderson could have gone to make something really special. But he stumbles on the takeoff and can’t quite achieve the altitude needed to reach its destination. Even as the engines sputter and start, the view on the way down is pretty great.