Even the biggest Wes Anderson defender must admit that he’s not for everyone. His style might be unique, but he achieves it by narrowly focusing on bourgeois nostalgia and filling his movie with quirky geniuses, overly-designed tableaus, and 60s pop rarities. But only the most cynical contrarian won’t acknowledge that all of Anderson’s movies feature moments of genuine pathos, no matter how artificial the character or setting.
Every one of his movies, that is, except Isle of Dogs.
On the surface, Isle of Dogs feels like a textbook Anderson movie. Returning to the stop-motion animation he used in the wonderful Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs features some of the most striking images of Anderson’s career, including a mini-prop plane crashed upon a pile of papers, the wreckage surrounded by a ring of burned orange sheets, a bulbous blonde perm sitting atop a feisty, freckled teen girl’s head. He fills the cast with actors familiar (Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum), inspired (Courtney B. Vance, Greta Gerwig), and, well… is this really the first time Yoko Ono’s been in a Wes Anderson movie?
It has all the right pieces, but Isle of Dogs feels like the piles of garbage and tech lining the film’s backgrounds: individual pieces may seem interesting, but there’s just too much for any one thing to stand out.
The problems begin with the story, which takes a simple “boy and his dog” plot and buries it under too much incident and too little character. Isle of Dogs splits time between two locations in near-future Japan: Megasaki City, where canine-hating Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) plans to eradicate dogs, and the Isle of Trash, a junkyard island occupied by Japan’s exiled dogs. When a pack, lead by the good-hearted Rex (Edward Norton) and the gruff stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), find Kobayashi’s 12-year-old nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin) at the crash site, they agree to reunite him with his lost guard dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). Along the way, the heroes uncover a centuries-long anti-dog conspiracy and encounter (among many, many other things) a team of adventuring super-scientists, activist teenagers lead by American exchange student Tracy Walker (Gerwig), and a dog resistance movement.
A master stylist, Anderson has proven himself capable of blending together disparate elements, but the many plots don’t just bog down the narrative Isle of Dogs – they dilute anything potentially interesting. Who wouldn’t love the idea of a gossip-hungry dog voiced by Jeff Goldblum or a modern dystopia modeled on 70’s sci-fi? That sound’s great, but the movie’s stuffed with so much stuff that nothing gets developed beyond those short descriptions. The best it can do is either fall back on thin character arcs, or individual moments of quirk.
And all that’s before we even get to the movie’s cultural politics. Critics smarter than me have already dissected these problems, so I’ll just underscore the issue with the language. While Anderson’s decision to cast Japanese actors in the roles of Japanese humans, who speak in their native language, might seem respectful, the effect creates a barrier for viewers. The dogs, all voiced by English-speaking Western actors, feel more human than the Japanese characters, who express themselves in either a language most viewers don’t understand or in grunts or growls. We relate to the virtuous English speakers, and subliminally see the Japanese speakers as inhuman monsters to be stopped or children to be saved.
Altogether, Isle of Dogs feels too precious, too quirky, and too middle-class white for its own good. It’s exactly the type of movie that the angriest Anderson detractor would imagine in the middle of the most unfair Anderson rant.