Wes Anderson likes to impose tight restrictions on his characters, then watch them wriggle out of it. Think of the forbidden love between adopted siblings in The Royal Tenenbaums, or another kind of forbidden love between two twelve year olds in Moonrise Kingdom. His work invariably echoes his past work, to the point that the most recent Wes Anderson film always feels like “the most Anderson-y.” This is certainly true of Isle of Dogs, a stop-motion animated adventure about thoughtful pups and how they cope within a draconian Japanese prefecture. There is no restriction tighter than our own innate natures – and that is particularly true for animals bred to be pets – so one of the film’s many joys is to watch his furry, soft-spoken heroes handle an absence of nurture.
The animation style is similar to The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s previous animated film, except there is less attention to animals in bespoke fashion. These dogs may talk – an early title card explains their dialogue is translated barks – but that is the only way they are anthropomorphized. They are mangy, love to eat trash, and are eager to obey simple commands. Facing a life in exile, these dogs want nothing more than to be pets again. The purity of the dog/human bond is a guiding principle in Isle of Dogs, so any sentimental pet owner may find themselves emotional before the film is over.
Anderson imagines Megasaki City, an island metropolis where the Mayor (Kunichi Nomura) deals with a dog flu epidemic by exiling all canines to the nearby Trash Island. Atari (Koyu Rankin) is the Mayor’s young ward, and he flies a solo mission to Trash Island so he can rescue his beloved companion Spots (Liev Schreiber). Spots is nowhere to be found, but Atari meets a pack of dogs led by the thoughtful Rex (Edward Norton) and Chief (Bryan Cranston), a ferocious stray. The pack resolves to help Atari, leading him to the island’s more remote reaches. Back in Megasaki, an American exchange student named Tracy (Greta Gerwig) investigates the corruption that allowed the Mayor to expel all the dogs.
One thing about Isle of Dogs is how Anderson avoids subtitles. All the Japanese characters speak Japanese, all the dogs speak English, and all the translation happens within the context of the film (Frances McDormand is the Mayor’s translator, and her breathless delivery serves as de-facto narration). The conceit has multiple purposes: it is immersive, sort like a foreign exchange program. The Japanese/English divide mirrors the inability to dogs to understand their masters, and vice versa. Anderson includes countless staples of Japanese culture, including a sumo match and kabuki theater, and they’re filmed with the careful composition/symmetry/color that define his work. I’m no expert on whether this film honors Japan or merely hijacks its aesthetic, and yet his attention to detail suggests respect. At least, it suggests as much respect as The Grand Budapest Hotel had for central Europe.
Isle of Dogs may be an animated film, but its primary audience is not children. The film deals with tough scenes, including dogs that are maimed, neglected, and sometimes mutilated. There is an entire subplot involving cannibalism, and Tracy’s investigation leads to a thorny conspiracy I could not possibly explain again. The dialogue is wry in that Anderson sort of way, combining shorthand and formality for irony’s sake, but most of the comedy requires the audience to recognize the voices. Chief is funnier if you realize it’s the guy from Breaking Bad, and Jeff Goldblum plays Duke, who is agreeably daffy. The real standout is Gerwig, who plays Tracy earnestly and with genuine moral conviction. By the time she confronts a scientist named Yoko Ono – who is played by the real Yoko Ono – the sincerity is a callback to the Max Fischer Players.
Gerwig may be the acting highlight, and yet Tracy’s arc points to the film’s low point: how Anderson handles his female characters. Almost every woman and girl in Anderson’s films is defined by their attraction to men. It is true of Margot and Ethaline Tenenbaum, it is true of Agatha, and it is true of the female characters here – canine or human. Tracy is independent and brave, only to develop a crush on Atari. Scarlett Johansson appears as Nutmeg, a pampered show dog with feminine features who develops a flirtation with Chief. Sure, McDormand is the translator and Tilda Swinton appears as a stern-looking pug, but those characters exist primarily to provide exposition. It is as if Anderson cannot conceive of women unless they feel desire. This has always been true of his work, but it is especially apparent and egregious in a film where there are so many opportunities for non-romantic relationships, and the canine characters needn’t be feminized. Johansson and Cranston could have swapped roles, and the film would be stronger for it.
That issue notwithstanding, Isle of Dogs is a delight. It fits as a companion to Moonrise Kingdom, since both films deal with strong-willed boys who stand by a strict moral code. It is slightly complicated in Megasaki, since dogs are thrown into the layered milieu between children and the adults who do not understand them. There are other layers that will probably reward multiple viewings, as the film’s dystopia evokes everything internment camps, to Kurosawa at his most socially conscious, to the West’s handling of immigrants. Anderson must realize his imagination bursts at the seams – hence his airtight control over his films – yet he has the wisdom to loosen and explore the kinship between dogs and their young masters. All the dogs on Trash Island are Good Boys (and Girls), but only a handful of them fully grasp just how special it is to be called that.