The Beauty and Sadness of Isle of Dogs

Wes Anderson’s second foray into stop-motion animation is a fable at once light and dark.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

“All barks have been rendered into English.”

If one were to ask a gathering of committed moviegoers to pick the director most likely to open a film with this notification, I’m confident that a majority would pick Wes Anderson. And they would, of course, be correct. Isle of Dogs, the director’s ninth feature and second foray into stop-motion animation, is as precious, minutely detailed, and magnificently deadpan in its humor as any of his previous work. But like its immediate predecessor, The Grand Budapest Hotel, it is also a film about the evil of which mankind is capable—in this case even to the animals presumed to be man’s best friend.

The film takes the form of a fable, set in the near future in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki. (Unlike the dogs, the Japanese characters—which is to say all of the human beings save one—do not have their words rendered into English, except when explicitly restated by a translator voiced by Frances McDormand. I leave to individual viewers to decide whether this is a way of center-staging the hounds—my view—or sidelining the Asian protagonists.) Under the false pretenses of “canine saturation,” “dog flu,” and “snout fever,” the essentially hereditary mayor, Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), has banished dogs from the city, resettling them on “Trash Island,” which is exactly what it sounds like: an apocalyptic dump reminiscent of the detritus-laden world that Wall-E the robot was left to clean up.

But what a dump it is—filthy and fetid, yet somehow utterly gorgeous. Anderson has cited visual influences as varied as the Rankin/Bass holiday specials, Akira Kurosawa, and Hayao Miyazaki. But the overall sensibility is Anderson’s eccentric own: Every pile of trash is placed with immaculate precision, discarded sake bottles catch the light like gemstones, and rivers of waste flow gloriously. The canine inhabitants of Trash Island share this dissonant beauty: thin and haggard, beset by illness and injury, their fur matted and askew, they convey an almost inexpressible nobility. Best of all is when they get into a scrap—of which there are many—and disappear into a cotton-ball dust cloud from which limbs and snouts periodically emerge.

The first dog sent to Trash Island was Spots (Liev Schreiber), the companion and guardian of the mayor’s own ward and “distant nephew,” Atari (Koyu Rankin). And so, with the combination of love and gumption endemic to any 12-year-old dog owner, Atari hijacks a small plane and undertakes a rescue mission. Once on Trash Island, he is aided by a self-described “pack of scary, indestructible alpha dogs”: Rex (Edward Norton), back in Moonrise Kingdom scout-leader mode; Boss (Bill Murray), a former team mascot; Duke (Jeff Goldblum), an inveterate gossip; King (Bob Balaban), an ex-spokesdog; and Chief (Bryan Cranston), a surly stray with an aptitude for fighting.

The journey to find Spots is the essential thread of the film. But the script (by Anderson, with the story co-credited to Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Nomura) weaves in discursions in the form of multiple flashbacks, a legendary backstory, and a subplot in which a foreign-exchange student from Cincinnati, Tracy (Greta Gerwig), persuades her school-newspaper pals to uncover the machinations of the mayor. (Having an American interlocutor take charge of her Japanese classmates is the movie’s one clear cultural misstep.) And Isle of Dogs would hardly be a Wes Anderson film at all if it did not include a few meticulous set pieces, notably the preparation of a lethal order of sushi and what is presumably the first-ever stop-motion-animation kidney transplant.

The extraordinary vocal cast—which also includes Scarlett Johansson, Courtney B. Vance, Harvey Keitel, Ken Watanabe, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, and Tilda Swinton as a dog with the oracular gift of “understanding TV”—is, well, extraordinary, with Cranston in particular shining as Chief, the dog who gradually learns what it’s like to love an owner. The soundtrack is a whimsical mishmash featuring Taiko drummers, “Midnight Sleighride,” a few snatches from Seven Samurai, and the 1966 psychedelic ditty “I Won’t Hurt You” by The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. And as in Fantastic Mr. Fox, whistling plays a meaningful role.

Anderson has both his admirers and his detractors (I am firmly in the former camp), and Isle of Dogs will likely fulfill the expectations of both. Is it refined and poignant, or fussy and twee? Potayto, potahto. All of Anderson’s movies have contained undercurrents of sadness, but like The Grand Budapest Hotel, his new film is not merely about individual wounds, but also about systemic societal abuses. Whereas the former movie let the encroachment of fascism simmer largely in the background, Isle of Dogs places its quasi-genocidal premise front and center.

It is a powerful temptation to view any new cultural offering through the lens of the current political moment. (The Death of Stalin, anyone?) And it’s true that Isle of Dogs is a film about scapegoating, political hysteria, and deportation. But it is also—and at its best—a film about dogs. May they never go unpetted.