Isle of Dogs may be the closest Wes Anderson will ever get to a sci-fi film. Of course he would use stop-motion animation to make it. Set 20 years from now, amidst the ultra-urban monoliths of Megasaki City—a Japanese metropolis that also seems to be Japan, or at least a Westernized idea of the small island nation—the film begins care of a decree by Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), a boulder of a man with equal ties to an ancient lineage of cat-loving aristocrats and to, based on the elaborate back tattoo we glimpse atop his tight little butt in a quick bath scene, an archetype of organized crime and political corruption. (The film actually begins on a prologue, a tapestry maintained by an old man with a long beard describing the prelapsarian feud between dog people and cat people.) Due to a vaguely described epidemic of “dog flu” (or “snout fever”), Kobayashi bans all dogs to Trash Island, a massive byproduct of technology and futurism, beginning with Spots (Liev Schreiber), the guard dog of 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin), who also happens to be the Mayor’s ward after Atari’s parents died in a horrible accident.
Since Bottle Rocket in 1996, the more manicured Anderson’s films have become—his obsessive control over his frames broadening into grander and grander worlds—the more we may be apt to extol his accomplishments rather than get invested in his stories. And it’s probably never been easier to do that than with Isle of Dogs, so rife with meticulousness and imagination, as is Anderson’s brand, and so unconcerned with steering this ostensible children’s movie towards actual children. For a director who pretty much defined a generation’s cinematic fetishization for symmetry (and quirky hipster nonsense) to then fetishize a country to which Westerners mainly relate through fetishization? So much of this beautiful movie just sort of eats itself.
Anderson’s cast comprises mostly A-list, white actors, everyone he knows able to get on his wavelength and deliver the precise tone he’s striking. As Max Landis has deigned to teach us braying, dull-eyed consumers, this is how you get a movie as painstaking and expensive and time-consuming as Isle of Dogs made. Dumping Spots to fend for himself on Trash Island (heartbreakingly left in his locked cage), Kobayashi orders the rest of the dogs in Megasaki rounded up and moved out, pets ripped from their families by his militaristic force of dog-catchers, spurred on by their Mayor’s authoritarian propaganda. Missing his dog too much, Atari hijacks a small plane and flies to Trash Island, where he crashes into the territory of a rigorously democratic pack of alphas—five of them: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray) and lifelong stray, resolutely against all masters, Chief (Bryan Cranston). The film can often get bleak, but Norton provides a guiding, capable presence, while Balaban and Murray add warmth to an especially cold setting. To be expected, really, because Anderson knows exactly how to use these guys by now, but what feels like such a step forward for him as a storyteller is the comfort these achingly realized characters can give his viewers. The future Japan he’s imagined can be a grim place; we depend on these animals to lead us through.
The emotional weight of Isle of Dogs depends on knowing exactly what that bond between dog and human can mean, how deeply and irrationally it can go. The purest scene in the film occurs early, in which Atari, still recuperating and bedridden after his family’s recent death, meets Spots, his new dog. Staring unblinkingly into each other’s eyes, both beginning to cry, Spots knows he’ll protect the vulnerable Atari, and Atari knows he’ll protect the vulnerable Spots—because Spots is a dog, and all dogs are vulnerable. At the core of Isle of Dogs is that kind of best-friendship: No matter how far we advance as a civilization, how disastrously we atomize and digitalize our lives, we’ll always have the devoted dependence of a dog, our immutable companion across the vast wasteland of human history. As much as the movie is an enrapturing, sometimes overwhelming experience, filled with passion and hard work and adoration for the impossible task of making such a singular movie at all, Anderson and his animation team find the film’s soul in these dog’s eyes. Such a brilliant touch to have the dogs cry, to give us a simple connection to these creatures when their faces may not be meant for emoting.
Spots opens his furry mouth and speaks in that scene, with English words, with the voice of a famous white person, just like every other dog in the film. Elsewhere, Japanese characters speak in Japanese without subtitles, translations provided via television announcer (Frances McDormand) or assorted signs when necessary, save for exceptionally Caucasian foreign exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig), Ohio native whose purebred show dog Nutmeg (Scarlett Johannsson) quietly begins a courtship with Chief over on Trash Island. With the denizens of Megasaki getting used to Kobayashi’s rule day by day, accepting the obsolescence of man’s best friend, Tracy raises a small army of politically active pubescents, claiming that the dog flu is the government’s creation, and that a cure had been discovered by local scientists, then immediately suppressed by the Kobayashi regime. A translucent afro of blonde hair atop her freckled mug, Tracy storms her way through Isle of Dogs, taking up Atari’s cause once Kobayashi, realizing his ward has disobeyed him, sends out menacing canine robots and drones and riot police to the island to root him out. However charming Gerwig can be, and however noble Tracy’s actions seem against the universal tide of injustice, there’s no denying the white savior narrative saturating so much of Anderson’s fantasia.
Justin Chang’s speculated that Anderson knows his strengths with dialogue wouldn’t work without this cast: “You can understand why a writer as distinctive as Anderson wouldn’t want his droll way with the English language to get lost in translation.” Why then have non-POC actors with all the big discernible speaking parts, which Chang succinctly describes as “effectively reducing the hapless, unsuspecting people of Megasaki to foreigners in their own city”? Anderson dreamed up Isle of Dogs with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and the aforementioned Nomura, and together their intentions are obviously benevolent, respectful, encouraged by Anderson’s unyielding attention to detail and admitted reverence for Akira Kurosawa—but then Anderson makes such thoughtless mistakes. Like leaning a bit too much into mushroom cloud imagery, or generally needing an overeager white girl to shake up the passive Japanese populace, or hiring Alexandre Desplat to compose the film’s music.
Sure, Desplat does well to avoid his obligatory Oscar bait in favor a score driven by taiko drums, but better would be not to hire Desplat at all. Give the job to a person of Japanese descent. Give the job to a Japanese person. Don’t make such clear moves to represent Japanese culture with truth and esteem, but then not carve out more representation within the cast. Maybe Max Landis is technically right about a movie like this never getting made without Cranston’s award-winning name attached, but Anderson could have tried. Or maybe Isle of Dogs is what trying looks like.
If Isle of Dogs is the closest Wes Anderson will ever get to a sci-fi film, then the Japanese fetishization at least has precedent. The name “Atari” appeared big and bold in last year’s Blade Runner 2049 as well, as much a signifier of way too many loaded, criss-crossing cultural cues as Anderson’s use here, which feels both suitable and like something he probably should have just avoided. Whatever Japan represents for Anderson and his cohorts—an overcrowded environment, humanity at the cutting edge, humanity at the edge, period—Isle of Dogs, a good film we should watch and rewatch for the next 20 years, can’t seem to shake itself free of what could have been.
Writer: Wes Anderson (screenplay); Wes Anderson, Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura, Roman Coppola (story)
Starring: Kunichi Nomura, Koyu Rankin, Bryan Cranston, Liev Schreiber, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Harvey Keitel, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Yoko Ono, Ken Watanabe
Release Date: March 23, 2018
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.