With his latest film “Isle of Dogs,” the famously meticulous Wes Anderson has presented himself with a challenge: Is it possible to make a derelict island full of rancid garbage and mangy mutts beautiful? Using muted tones, intricate sets, and a gorgeous mixture of hand-drawn and stop-motion animation, Anderson has ensured that the film’s aesthetic style is decisively a triumph. But he may have sacrificed some of the soul of the film in the process.
After a wave of dog flu sweeps across the fictional Megasaki City, the cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi enacts a decree to quarantine all dogs on Trash Island. The mayor’s ward, a 12-year-old boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin), flies solo to the island to find his dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), and encounters a ragtag group of former domestic dogs: the cautious Rex (Edward Norton), the gossip-loving Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and Boss and King (Bill Murray and Bob Balaban). Chief (Bryan Cranston) is the only disobedient stray in the pack — “I bite,” he repeatedly explains. Atari is similar, albeit less standoffish, and the two slowly form a heartwarming bond.
Aside from his perfectly symmetrical cinematography, Anderson’s intentionally stilted, on-the-nose dialogue is one of his most iconic trademarks. This winsome aspect is still apparent yet downplayed in “Isle of Dogs,” as most of the human characters speak unsubtitled Japanese (though an interpreter played by Frances McDormand translates some important scenes). The film is prefaced with a title card stating that all characters speak in their native tongue, while the barks have been translated into English. This means that Japanese speakers may get a bit more out of the film than others. On the other hand, it encourages English-speaking audiences to identify with the dogs rather than the Japanese people. This is a problem.
That problem is exacerbated by the introduction of Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), a plucky American exchange student and journalist. Gerwig’s voice is delightful as always, but her character is one of the only English-speaking humans — she serves mostly as a vessel for American audiences to project themselves into. Tracy recalls Jared Leto’s character in Netflix’s film, “The Outsider,” in which a white American is forced to assimilate with the Yakuza gangs of Japan.
While these characters aren’t technically examples of whitewashing, a term which refers to the practice of casting white actors in roles made specifically for people of color, their existence still prioritizes the white experience while using Japan as a stylish backdrop. The filmmakers are clearly trying to demonstrate that these characters feel like outsiders in Japan, but they seem to be forgetting that “American” is not synonymous with “white.”
Aside from these missteps, “Isle of Dogs” attempts to be respectful to Japanese culture by throwing in homages to Akira Kurosawa’s classic samurai films and employing Alexandre Desplat’s percussive, taiko drum-heavy score. It’s easy to get distracted while trying to drink in every subtle reference and intricate detail — perhaps too easy. As the plot gets rolling, new obstacles come in at a mile-a-minute, making it hard to focus on what exactly is happening. There’s just no room for the characters (or audience) to breathe.
In addition to the sometimes baffling story structure, frequent exposition dumps also distract from the spine of the film: the devoted bond shared between people and their dogs. The only thing stopping it from jumping from good to great is its inability to get in touch with humanity like Anderson’s other films do — the heart is sorely missing from the dystopian world in “Isle of Dogs.” If only the characters were as complex as the plot.
“Isle of Dogs” opens Friday, April 6 in theaters everywhere.