Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs is the oddball auteur's second stop-motion animation film, following The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). The films he made between these animated efforts-Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)-were among his better works, as the former evinced a real sense of poignant feeling that sometimes gets lost in his penchant for irony and pastiche, while the latter was a marvelous screwball farce with a fantastic central performance by Ralph Fiennes. Isle of Dogs falls somewhere in-between, as it is not one of Anderson's best films, yet it also puts on display precisely what makes him such a continually interesting artist, most notably his willingness to extend his familiar aesthetic into new realms.
The new realm in Isle of Dogs is Japan, or, more exactly, a fantastical, slightly futuristic dream-version of Japan, which is very much in keeping with Anderson's fascination with foreign lands and tendency to filter those worlds through his own sensibility. This is why accusations of "cultural appropriation" and "cultural tourism" are virtually beside the point; he "Andersonizes" Japan the same way he "Andersonized" Eastern Europe in The Grand Budapest Hotel, India in The Darjeeling Limited (2007), and, for that matter, New York City in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Anderson's films never take place in real locations, but rather in distinctly fabricated versions of them.
Much of the action in Isle of Dogs takes place on the titular island, which is known as "Trash Island." The island is populated entirely by canines because they have all been banished from Japan by Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), the mayor of the fictional Megasaski City, due to an outbreak of a highly contagious dog flu, despite the protests of a sympathetic scientist, Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito), who believes he can find a cure. The first dog banished, Spots, belonged to Atari (Koyu Rankin), a preadolescent orphan who has been taken in by the mayor. Determined to reunite with Spots, Atari steals a plane and flies to Trash Island, where he is taken in by a group of dogs that include Chief (Bryan Cranston, sounding very George Clooney-esque), a stray who is particularly wary of humans. As in most of Anderson's films, Isle of Dogs is primarily an ensemble work, and there are nearly a dozen additional characters, one of the most important being Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), a foreign exchange student who uncovers a conspiracy to keep the dog flu from being cured and ends up working with Atari and fighting against Kobayashi's various minions. The voices of numerous familiar faces from Anderson's previous films show up, including Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Frances McDorman, and, of course, Bill Murray (in an amusingly self-conscious turn, the dogs' barks, we are told in an intertitle, have been dubbed into English, whereas most of the Japanese is left unsubtitled).
As with Anderson's previous films, Isle of Dogs is a quirky visual feast, made all the more engaging by the tactile nature of the stop-motion animation, which was been crafted with the same sense of care and detail that made The Fantastic Mr. Fox so memorably enjoyable. There is a real sense of life to the action, even when it steers well into the realm of the absurd, although the emotional core of the film is often subsumed by its deadpan humor. This is not a bad thing, per se, but it keeps the film from reaching the emotional depths that Anderson found in his best films, including The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom. The frame is literally bursting with references to Japanese culture, both traditional and pop, which is why it has been accused in some quarters of hijacking and appropriation. Granted, Anderson, a white American, wrote and directed the film, and the story was concocted primarily by white Americans (including regular Anderson collaborators Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman), although a story credit goes to Japanese actor, DJ, and radio personality Kunichi Nomura. Accusations of appropriation ignore, of course, the extensive participation by Japanese artists and actors in the film's production, as well as the aforementioned tendency of Anderson to recreate the world through his own sensibility. The Japan of Isle of Dogs exists in the same way that the Republic of Zubrowka and the island of New Penzance exist: entirely in Anderson's head, a place that is generally worth repeat visits.
Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Fox Searchlight Pictures
Overall Rating: (3)
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