Review: Isle of Dogs

A sumptuous ode to pups and Japanese cinema, Wes Anderson’s latest stop-motion animation could use a bit more meat on the bones. Pretty flimsy.

Wes Anderson’s ever-imaginative movie canvas first gave us the joy of artfully-animated fur in his off-the-wall take on Roald Dahl classic Fantastic Mr Fox. It’s an intricate technique that once more enchants in Isle of Dogs’ beautifully rendered mutts, but as magical as this loving pastiche of Japanese pop culture looks (attracting some criticism as cultural appropriation, but more on that later), it feels as light as ruffled chicken feathers in comparison.

Set in fictional city Megasaki, in a near-future Japan where population growth is a very real concern, the canine community in particular has exploded to uncontrollable levels whilst simultaneously being plagued by a host of unsavoury ailments including mangy coats, snotty sneezes and anger management issues.

As such, the corrupt (of course cat-loving) Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Konichi Nomura, who also shares a writing credit here) has exiled them all to an offshore prison dubbed Trash Can Island that also doubles as the metropolis’ intricately detailed landfill. This prompts his less-then-impressed ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) to steal a rickety plane and set off to rescue his onetime guardian and best friend Spots (Live Schreiber).

Once on the garbage gulag, he enlists the support of a loyal band of pups including obligatory Anderson collaborator Bill Murray as Boss, Edward Norton as Rex and Jeff Goldblum as Duke. Less willing is the stray and surly Chief (an expertly cast Bryan Cranston). As the search for spots (surely a dorky Star Trek reference?) continues, Scarlett Johansson, F Murray Abraham and a sorely squandered Tilda Swinton aid the ruff ruff gang.

We’re told via one of many cute intertitles that divide the film into chapters that all barks have been rendered into English, while humans are left in their mother tongue. So while we can readily understand exchange student activist Tracy (Greta Gerwig), pushing for the punitive deportation to be overturned and also Oscar-winning Frances McDormand’s excitable interpreter, only those fluent in Japanese will grasp Nomura, Rankin and their Japanese compatriots.

This directorial decision, combined with the mishmash of Japanophilia clearly inspired by the likes of Hayao Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa, the predominantly American actors voicing the dogs, and also the white saviour role of Gerwig’s Tracy, has caused come consternation in certain camps. I sympathise, but while Gerwig is certainly a major player, it’s Atari who wins the lions share of screen time, with Tracy only actively affecting the plot in its final act, and even then in unison with Atari. As for not subtitling Japanese dialogue, the expert animation clearly signals emotional intent and the general aesthetic feels more like loving affection than appropriation, to this admittedly white reviewer.

Whatever your call on that debate, Isle of Dogs is bound to elicit oohs and ahs for its technical wizardry, from the insane level of detail in the animation, aided by returning production designer Adam Stockhuasen who works with Paul Harrod and a surprisingly rousing score from score by Alexandre Desplat. I just wish there was a little more to its gossamer-thin plot. As sweet and sumptuous as it is, I’d hardly left the cinema before it was drifting from memory, a flimsy whimsy lost like the poor pooches.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords