Wes Anderson's "Isle Of Dogs" Excels Despite Cultural Blind Spots

Boasting one of the great celebrity voice casts in animated film history, the stop-motion “Isle Of Dogs” mostly earns its spots – and its place in the upper half of auteur Wes Anderson’s filmography.

Allegations of cultural appropriation have accompanied the Japan-set film’s release. Indeed, the filmmaker’s use of the country and its storied culture occasionally amounts to window dressing. And yes, the dogs speak English while the Japanese human characters speak their native tongue, only receiving occasional translation from an interpreter (voiced by Frances McDormand). Subtitles are curiously hard to come by.

But the narrative requires an island nation with an archipelago. And the rich audiovisual history of Japan is an undeniable fit with Anderson’s habitually immaculate visual stylings. The setting might have been employed with more sensitivity, but it produces the intended effect: total immersion.

The darkly funny movie is the “Grand Budapest Hotel” writer-director’s second stop-motion undertaking after 2009’s comparatively bright and cheery “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Although far from companion pieces, both works are overwhelming in their meticulous commitment to a technique that requires it. The more dynamic and textured “Dogs” sees Anderson telling a timely tale of authoritarianism and insurrection with his signature opulence.

A stray pooch named Chief (Bryan Cranston) and indoor dogs Rex (Edward Norton), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), and King (Bob Balaban) are among the 750,000 that have been expelled from Megasaki City by its tyrannical mayor, Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura). The mayor justifies the dogs’ exile to Trash Island as an attempt to combat a nasty case of dog flu, ignoring that a cure is likely imminent. He simply loathes the species. His young nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin) doesn’t feel the same way, to put it mildly. The boy steals a plane and flies to Trash Island to track down his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber), setting into motion a powerful pro-dog resistance.

Greta Gerwig voices the movement’s leader, a white foreign exchange student named Tracy Walker who ends up an emblem of the movie’s racial tone-deafness. Then there’s Tilda Swinton and Scarlett Johansson as supporting canines Oracle and Nutmeg, both actors having experienced recent backlash in relation to Hollywood whitewashing (concerning their roles in “Doctor Strange” and “Ghost In The Shell,” respectively). Their presence only outlines the bubble that must be the world of Wes Anderson – obliviousness not being an uncommon side effect of auterism.

Nevertheless, all three actors are creative assets, with Johansson’s Nutmeg shining in her brief screen time. (A quiet, moody scene between Nutmeg and Chief is an early highlight.) Harvey Keitel, Akira Takayama, F. Murray Abraham, Akira Ito, Yoko Ono, Ken Watanabe, and Courtney B. Vance as the narrator round out the starry voice cast, but only Cranston’s hard-luck, anti-human outcast really stands out among the dog characters. His more coiffed compatriots – and their voice actors – get lost in the shuffle.

But Chief’s arc is beyond compelling. While at first the pic’s heart is hard to find, it ends up being Chief and his reluctant team-up with Atari to find Spots. Their initially uneasy bond spawns all the emotional (but never twee) beats required to make the narrative almost as satisfying as the visuals. Considering the absolutely smashing animation, this is no easy feat.

Like Sofia Coppola’s “Lost In Translation,” also featuring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson and also suffering from race problems, the whole of “Isle Of Dogs” is intoxicating despite its blind spots. Wes Anderson has added another convincing piece of evidence in his case for being one of the great Gen-X artists – somehow he keeps becoming at once more esoteric and more accessible – and audiences end up the happy beneficiaries. Odds are 2018 won’t see a more sumptuous piece of cinema.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: March 23, 2018 (Limited)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Wes Anderson
Screenwriter: Wes Anderson
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Kunichi Nomura, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schreiber, Frances McDormand, Greta Gerwig, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Akira Takayama, F. Murray Abraham, Akira Ito, Yoko Ono, Ken Watanabe, Courtney B. Vance
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and violent images)