‘Isle of Dogs’: Wes Anderson’s Japanophile Delight Packs Anti-Authoritarian Bite

Wes Anderson’s second stop-motion animation outing, about a boy’s quest to find his dog on an island made of garbage and a cruel totalitarian regime, is the director at his best.

Fox Searchlight

BERLIN, Germany — For many viewers, Wes Anderson’s brand of whimsy, which can often seem cloying if not grating, began to redeem itself with his first animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, a widely admired adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s classic. Animation, which by its very nature is stylized and oblivious to realism, proved an especially apropos genre for Anderson, whose famously finicky penchant for detailed production design often threatens to overwhelm the narratives of his live-action movies.

Isle of Dogs, which opened the 68th Berlin Film Festival, is even more strenuously playful than Fantastic Mr. Fox—the work invested in Anderson’s flights of fancy is always quite conspicuous. Although casual moviegoers may be oblivious to the references that pepper this influence-drenched movie, film buffs will delight what is a virtual mash-up of visual styles and motifs derived from movies, art history, and sci-fi sagas. Subtle borrowings from Japanese scroll paintings, the films of Akira Kurosawa, Ishirō Honda and Hayao Miyazaki, Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, and a host of post-apocalyptic anime favorites (Akira comes easily to mind) make Anderson’s second stop-motion animation outing a veritable game of spot-the-allusion.

Spots (the voice of Liev Schreiber; making the archetypal canine moniker plural is a perverse Anderson flourish) is the canine protagonist in Isle of Dogs, a hymn to man’s best friend that deploys interlocking plot lines in order to skewer mankind’s cruelty to both dogs and their owners. Set in a fanciful Japanese alternative universe, the villain is the autocratic Mayor Kobayashi (perhaps a sly reference to another famous Japanese director— Masaki Kobayashi, the auteur behind the antiwar epic The Human Condition) of the fictional Megasaki City. When a virulent strain of canine flu breaks out, Mayor Kobayashi does little to combat the disease and banishes all of the dogs to a vast wasteland of garbage—Trash Island.  Anderson’s light touch helps to make the grim consequences of the dogs’ enforced exile easier to swallow. The symptoms of a debilitating disease, even some of the pooches’ reversion to cannibalism, becomes more palatable with the addition of carefully calibrated gallows humor, as well as our intuitive realization that macabre comedy will eventually give way to an upbeat resolution.

While political satire is not one of Anderson’s strengths, the totalitarian state he conjures up in this dreamscape works well as a deliberately cartoonish foil to the diametrically opposed altruistic quest of 12-year-old Atari Kobayashi, the “ward of the mayoralty,” for his lost dog Spots. The film takes rather scattershot jabs at the pharmaceutical industry, urban corruption, and the cockiness of American exchange students. These are rather transient preoccupations, however, in a fantasy more concerned with driving home the point that the oppressed dogs of Trash Island are surrogates for alienated humans who are adrift in a world that doesn’t understand their needs and desires. From this vantage point, the outcast dogs have a real affinity with the teen lovers of Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, perhaps the most poignant study of youthful disaffection by a director frequently stereotyped as “quirky” by both his fans and detractors. 

One of Isle of Dogs’s notable delights is its success in matching expressive puppet miniatures with congenial voice actors. As Chief, the leader of the outcast dogs, Bryan Cranston combines swagger with vulnerability. He is ready to defend his terrain if necessary, but is painfully shy when consorting with a show dog called Nutmeg, whom Scarlett Johansson voices with coquettish aplomb. Perhaps most impressively, Greta Gerwig lends her voice to one of the most sympathetic humans, Tracy Walker—a fiery American exchange student who challenges the dictatorial mayor and succeeds in revealing that his regime is suppressing the serum that can cure canine flu.

Isle of Dogs’ immersion in, and celebration of, Japanese pop culture is one of its most alluring and, to a certain extent, puzzling selling points. Anderson’s protracted exercise in “Japanophilia” will no doubt launch innumerable academic papers. If Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited seemed slightly off-putting, or even unwittingly Orientalist, because it used India as a backdrop for three white guys coming to terms with their neuroses, Isle of Dogs cannot be accused of facile cultural appropriation since its idiosyncratic vision is seamlessly fused, without condescension, with the motifs of samurai films, anime, and even the fetishization of “cuteness” that Japanese pop culture is known for. A certain cuteness, or preciousness, is of course what has made Anderson’s films the object of scorn for some curmudgeonly critics and viewers. Nevertheless, the fantasy realm of a talking dog universe prevents Anderson’s trademark whimsy from congealing into sentimentality.