While I consider myself a Wes Anderson fan, and adore several of his films, I am sympathetic to the argument that he is the most dangerous modern influence in highbrow filmmaking, normalising frivolity and shallow cuteness to such a point that anything else will be considered pretentious. It’s been visible in Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and in the success of Taika Waititi’s mean-spirited ‘quirky comedies’. Wes Done Badly is very bad indeed, and has begun to present itself with almost the frequency of Wes Done Brilliantly — his 2012 preteen romance Moonrise Kingdom is one of this decade’s finest works. His latest foray into cartoon whimsy is a literal cartoon: the stop-motion animation Isle of Dogs, a strange blend of some Studio Ghibli, Madagascar and his own Fantastic Mr. Fox. Being a well-known advocate of banishing all dogs to an island, my sympathies watching this film were somewhat questionable. And when you’re watching a film about loving dogs, but you don’t like dogs very much at all, the issues can only multiply.
Far more compelling than the canine canvass is Isle of Dogs’s Japan setting and almost overwhelming use of Japanese formatting: every one of Anderson’s trademark labels is displayed in both languages, the Japanese human characters actually speak Japanese and his painterly visuals now feature heavy influence of that nation’s artists. To the casual viewer (though, with a Wes movie, I suppose everyone is a ‘casual viewer’) it must seem rather bizarre. When Frances McDormand appears, voicing a Japanese translator, I couldn’t help but wonder how the “Three Billboards is racist” crowd will respond to this criminal act of whitewashed casting.
She is just one of many legends featured in the cast: our principle gang of mutts features Bryan Cranston (effectively playing a four-legged spin on his Last Flag Flying character), Ed Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban and Jeff Goldblum. Greta Gerwig is an American student who unravels the conspiracy of Trash Island (an, in my opinion, excellent and efficient scheme for keeping flu-ridden dogs away from the rest of us). Liev Schreiber proves an exceptional vocal performer as Lost Dog Spots. Harvey Keitel and Yoko Ono are amusing presences. Tilda Swinton less so. Once I hear Scarlett Johansson’s voice, I get horrible flashbacks of Spike Jonze’s vile Her (her character, a former showdog, is introduced by means of some self-plagiarism from Mr. Fox).
It’s a pleasant surprise that young pilot Atari (Koyu Rankin) — the main human character — never speaks in English, and lends a little authenticity to what is otherwise an aggressively manufactured product. If The Grand Budapest Hotel was storyboarded to death, as I’ve often complained, Isle of Dogs is a limping carcass of what a truly great Wes Anderson film resembles. Every frame is splendidly-constructed, but there’s hardly any life to be seen. At a shockingly bloated, how-did-Fox-allow-it 101 minutes, it becomes a drag far sooner than you’d expect. There’s some light politics scattered in — the mayor being responsible for Trash Island — but any attempts to spark an allegory for American treatment of immigrants or minorities merely furthered my irritation at the disproportionate dog worshipping. Isle of Dogs is, despite having marginally more two-legged representation than Mr. Fox, Anderson’s least human film to date. I can only hope that, like his jump from Mr. Fox to Moonrise Kingdom, he will follow this relative misstep with another surprise live-action masterpiece. Unless his next endeavour is shadow puppetry or something experimental about wool, things can only get better.