A seeker and maker of symmetrical images that intuitively please the eye, Wes Anderson may well be the most aesthetically influential filmmaker of the last 20 years. The visual accomplishment of his new stop-motion feature, Isle of Dogs, is practically brain-breaking, a leveling up from 2009’s already gorgeous Fantastic Mr. Fox that will be pored over by animation heads for generations to come. Naturally, its strongest moments are tableaux: two-dimensional at first glance, yet given extraordinary depth and detail. The innate imperfection of canine hair, matted differently in every frame, gives Anderson’s lovingly crafted dioramas the illusion of life.
From this, one can glean a workable analogy for an auteur whose Achilles’ heel has always been his obsession with fencing human characters inside locked-off, static frames. Even if Isle of Dogs is at once Anderson’s densest and fleetest film to date, it’s nevertheless obsessive-compulsive enough to make the occasional handheld shots from 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums and 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou seem daring and experimental in retrospect. Isle of Dogs corroborates the now-old joke that the filmmaker works most confidently with puppets and models, as they’re properly suited to these kinds of immaculately constructed dollhouses of cinema.
The film takes place in a dystopian Japanese city called Megasaki “20 years into the future,” where dogs have been scapegoated for carrying toxic diseases and relocated to a grim waste island, by fiat of the despotic, square-shouldered Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura, who helped conceive the story with Anderson, Roman Coppola, and Jason Schwartzman). Kobayashi’s orphaned nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin) flies to the island in search of his deported pet, Spots (Liev Schreiber), who the other animals speculate may have in fact been “dog zero.” A band of displaced dogs voiced by A-list celebrities decide to help him, even though their de facto leader, Chief (Bryan Cranston), has his doubts. The ensuing plotline is an elongated workout in finding new ways to cleverly pictorialize what have become Anderson’s signature tropes: the tragically aborted childhood (Atari), the team breaking up and reuniting (the dogs), and the final cathartic breakthrough riffing on both action movies and Hollywood musicals. What’s being innovated is the form—and Anderson’s belief in form as substance nearly absolves Isle of Dogs from anything approaching sociopolitical consciousness.
Then again, Isle of Dogs is surprisingly bleak for an ostensible kids’ film: Kobayashi’s pro-dog scientist opponent is assassinated (a poisoning rebranded by news media as suicide), and three of the leading dog ensemble are incinerated in one of the island’s processing plants (spoiler: they survive). Himself a throwback to the autocratic nationalists of imperial-era Japan, Kobayashi sends drones and robot dogs to the island to retrieve Atari and terrorize his newfound posse—and their sinister eyes and gnashing teeth could be modeled after Toho’s Mechagodzilla from the 1970s.
These twee phantasmagorias are finer-grained in their references than Fantastic Mr. Fox or 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (which stole from the still-underappreciated Soviet-bloc animators Ladislas Starevich and Karel Zeman, respectively), but the conditions of late capitalism worldwide are such that it’s worth asking why Anderson had to set this fairy tale in the real-life country of Japan. Using feudal history (Kobayashi’s hatred of dogs traces back to a feud between shogunates) and remixed anime tropes (the characters appear hand-drawn on TV screens and faux woodcuts), the film yields only aesthetic answers: The images may be rich, but their context is shallow.
Worse still is an American exchange student, Tracy (Greta Gerwig), with a crush on Atari, and who leads a singlehanded campaign to turn the tide of public opinion against Mayor Kobayashi, thus reifying old stereotypes about Japanese passivity. Ostensibly for laughs, one scene sees Tracy angrily throttling a crestfallen Japanese scientist (voiced by—and also inexplicably named after—Yoko Ono) by the neck. Given the painstaking frame-by-frame choreography of a film like this, it seems Anderson failed to entirely consider how this might come off to an even remotely skeptical viewership.
Whatever this plotline accomplishes, it’s unflattering to the Japanese at best. The bulk of Isle of Dogs’s Japanese dialogue goes untranslated unless it’s a public pronouncement, a sticker, or a sign—perhaps an acknowledgement on the filmmakers’ part that they can’t fully “go there.” But just as American audiences can enjoy Godzilla movies or Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira as pure escapism, their connotations are different for Japanese viewers, harkening back to the country’s never-ending deference to the United States after World War II. If you’re willing to consider Japan beyond the elegant tropes invited by sumo wrestlers, sushi, and cherry blossoms, then this film can only register as a gorgeously baroque failure. Isle of Dogs’s invocations of corruption and militarism (including multiple punctuative mushroom-cloud gags, as if the crest of a hydrogen bomb were specifically Japanese) should leave a sour taste in the mouth of anyone unable to abandon the thought of the world outside of the film’s perimeters. Anderson is clearly a massive talent working, again, in his prime. However uncomfortable, it’s crucial to ask what gives him the right to romp around in all these signifiers in service of bespoke whimsy—but then the word for it isn’t “right,” but rather privilege.