Looking at Wes Anderson’s career arc is like flipping through the passport of one of your better-traveled friends. There are his stories of varying shades of Americana from slow-burn Texas (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore) to neurotically creative New York (The Royal Tenenbaums) and emotionally stunted New England (Moonrise Kingdom). Then you have his further flung locations ranging from the tripped-out sun-stroked Mediterranean (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) to a romantic postcard India (The Darjeeling Limited) and the imagined semi-historical locales of wartime Mitteleuropa (The Grand Budapest Hotel) and storybook British Isles (Fantastic Mr. Fox). Now, with his trippy and densely-layered but somewhat stillborn quasi-apocalyptic canine adventure fantasy Isle of Dogs, Anderson has finally crossed the Pacific to Japan. It’s only a matter of time before he gets to Australia. His kangaroos will most likely be highly droll.
If considering all these locations one after the other is like passport-snooping, actually seeing them for the first time can be like getting care packages sent from distant lands. Although embedded with Anderson’s precisely mannered point of view — like the Coens or Kubrick, his preternatural control over productions can astound or push one away (is there a more spic-and-span director working today?) — each movie is a crisply wrapped and carefully curated selection of specific tics and cues unique to that place or time.
But not really. The story of The Grand Budapest Hotel squeezed Stefan Zweig’s narrative of a lost European civilization being swept away by barbarism through Anderson’s twee comedy machine. In the same way, Isle of Dogs mashes up the cultural capital that could be accumulated by a particularly keen Japanophile Western exchange student and uses it as intensely exoticized backdrop for another of the director’s half-rambling, half-tightly focused comedic digressions on lost causes, accidental families, and awkwardly sweet love stories.
Even though he has frequently pulled from the fantastic — the pirates in Life Aquatic, the prison break in Budapest — the story for Isle of Dogs represents Anderson’s sharpest break from realism since Fantastic Mr. Fox. Seemingly another animal-based stop-motion animated fable like that one, Isle of Dogs doesn’t inhabit any familiar landscape. The setting is supposedly twenty years in the future on “the Japanese archipelago”. But really, it’s an alternate Nippon in which most technology and design stopped advancing sometime in the late 1950s, how else to explain all the wood paneling and analog technology? In this world, Japan’s current state was decided centuries ago by wars fought between clans who loved cats and who loved dogs. The cat lovers won.
That set in motion a centuries-long plot by the Kobayashi clan (cat people, the lot of ’em) to rid the country of dogs. In a convoluted series of events, after a “dog flu” infects the canine population of “Megasaki,” Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura, his character looking less politician and more Yakuza bruiser) banishes all dogs to Trash Island. There, like the prisoners dumped into Manhattan in Escape from New York, the sickly canines fend for themselves by scrounging amidst valleys of garbage free of human or feline constraint.
In Pixar or Dreamworks world, this would be the setup for hijinks galore. Dogs gamboling in garbage as though romping through fields of clover. But since pretty much all of Anderson’s movies hit the same notes of wry and cockeyed humor regardless of setting or characters, these dogs are no goony and lovable mutts. A chatty and laid-back bunch — voiced by an incomparable trio of Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Bob Balaban — they’re half-led by Chief (Bryan Cranston), a scarred stray with abandonment issues who tries to whip them out of anomie by pronouncing, “We’re a band of scary, indestructible alpha dogs.” But their day to day leader is Rex, a thoughtful consensus seeker voiced by Edward Norton, who once again brings the brisk Boy Scout leader Zen that Anderson has used so effectively in the past.
The issue at hand is what to do about Atari (Koyu Rankin), a nephew of the mayor’s who stole a top-secret plane prototype and flew it to Trash Island looking for his beloved guard dog, Spots. The pack agrees to help him out, even though they can’t understand anything Atari is saying — in a perverse stylistic tic, Anderson has left most of the humans’ dialogue in nonsubtitled Japanese (though radio announcer Frances McDormand provides translations for the mayor’s pronouncements at least), while an on-screen note points out that “All barks have been rendered into English.”
The adventure that follows is a junkyard tale of tested loyalties and moody moonstruck love. Chief fights his attraction to the flirty and haughty showdog Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) while back on the mainland, a pro-dog American exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) leading protests against the pro-cat regime falls in love with Atari from afar. It’s told with herky-jerk humor and a beautifully rendered ghostly sadness that lingers almost more than anything else. The backdrop is dense with references, particularly classic Toho monster movies — whose vision of rattletrap postwar urban Japan is a big part of the look here — to lush Hokusai-inspired backdrops. At some point, the cultural callouts verge on pandering, witness the character Yoko-ono (voiced by, yes, Yoko Ono), the look-at-me! severed-ear nod to Yojimbo, and a third-act plot point revolving around poisoned wasabi.
Isle of Dogs shows Anderson spreading his wings … a bit. The humor, mordant and ironic but twinged with the odd dash of heartbreak sincerity, is as winsome as ever. In addition to slotting in performers from movies past — yes, that is Anjelica Huston from his earlier period showing up as the voice of “Mute Poodle” — Anderson is accumulating a great constellation of indie royalty, from Gerwig to McDormand. There’s a widening spiral of welcome newcomers like Cranston and Courtney B. Vance who one imagines will find themselves part of the traveling crew, worked into ever-denser ensembles that could end up resembling the latest Avengers flick when it comes times for credits. There does not appear to be a single dog voiced by Ralph Fiennes or any of the Wilson clan. Pity, as one imagines all of them have as high potential for canine humor as Murray or Balaban, whose deadpan line readings can sum up the entirety of the Anderson approach to wizened humor in less than a sentence.
When Anderson is at his best, the action is pushed along in its stuttering way by the power of a personality: Murray in Life Aquatic, Fiennes in Grand Budapest Hotel. For all its gorgeous design and sprawling half-futuristic, half-retro world-building, though, this is a pretty staid enterprise. Cranston’s Chief is the closest thing we have to a protagonist and although his heartsick confusion over his inability to relate (“I bite” is a continual refrain) has emotional pull, his reluctance to engage drags too much of the movie down with it. Once Anderson has built his gimcrack Rube Goldberg machinery of B-movie villains and depressive antiheroes, it stutters along inside the beautiful animation at increasingly sluggish speeds.
This isn’t Anderson at his worst, but it shows a worrying trend. By piling on greater and greater crowds of performers and ever more crowded landscapes, the further he burrows into these self-contained worlds that are less cinematic stories than they are Cornell boxes with jokes.
Title: Isle of Dogs
Director/writer: Wes Anderson
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Konichi Nomura, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDorman, Tilda Swinton, Akira Ito, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Ken Watanabe, Yoko Ono
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Year of release: 2018