Wes Anderson returns to the world of stop-motion animation for the first time since 2009's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" with the imaginative dystopian fantasy "Isle of Dogs." But while his follow-up demonstrates the same technical skill and storytelling inventiveness that made his first foray such a success, some of its aesthetic decisions end up undermining the message of empathy and understanding the story wishes to impart.
Some 20 years in the future, the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki has suffered an epidemic of the fearsome sounding "snout fever" and "dog flu." On the orders of Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura, who also receives a story credit on the film), all dogs have been deported from the city and quarantined to Trash Island to cease further spread of disease.
The story picks up with a pack of alpha dogs: Rex (Ed Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) who've gotten used to their new hard knock lives in the abandoned wasteland, facing sickness and fighting other packs for scraps of rotten food. But the dogs soon find a new purpose when the 12-year-old nephew of the mayor, Atari (Koyu Rankin) crash-lands on the island.
The boy has embarked on a rescue mission to find his beloved long lost dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), the first of his kind to be banished to Trash Island. The ragtag group is reluctantly joined on their journey by a bitter former stray named Chief (Bryan Cranston), and along the way they uncover a conspiracy and help to restore the canine species to their rightful place as man's best friend.
There's much to recommend about "Isle of Dogs": its story is clever, funny, even touching. The characters speak with Anderson's droll, understated sense of humor, and the film boasts an imaginative and gorgeous animation style -- the dog puppets are impressively furry and convey a loveable soulfulness. Still, something feels off from the very first moments.
Early on, a title card informs us that "All barks have been translated into English." It's meant to explain why these Japanese dogs all speak with the voices of white Americans. The Japanese human characters, however, receive no such translation. The most crucial bits are given subtitles or translated by an onscreen interpreter voiced by Frances McDormand, but the majority is left untranslated.
The decision to have the dog characters speak English while the humans speak untranslated Japanese is clearly intended as a way to get us into the mind of the canine characters, unable to understand the humans around them. But these artificial barriers are erected to keep the intended Western audience from emotionally identifying in any way with the Japanese characters. Not to mention it being a little odd that in all their years, the dogs would never have picked up any of the language.
The film is saturated with signifiers of classic Japanese culture: samurai, haiku, bento boxes, taiko drums, sumo wrestling, and the films of Akira Kurosawa. Anderson clearly has a love for the country's art and culture, but ends up showing less of an appreciation for the people who created it.
What's intended as affectionate homage becomes something else entirely when filtered through the lens of an objectifying Western gaze. There's no particular reason this story has to be set in Japan. Since the setting isn't integral in any way, it lacks any meaning behind it and comes across as what it is: an exotic set-dressing that Anderson is able to swap into his meticulously composed dioramas.
There are ideas in the film that speak to the Japanese experience. It is after all, the story of an unfairly maligned population who face internment and deportation. But these ideas and the message Anderson intends to send about them are half-formed at best.
More problematic is the character of Tracy (voiced by Greta Gerwig), an American foreign exchange student who becomes the voice of the resistance in Megasaki. The Japanese population is too meek or easily manipulated to fight for their beloved pets; they're not stirred to action until forced by Tracy. She's the classic White Savior, and it's frustrating to see this ugly trope rear its head in a film so otherwise filled with storytelling wit and originality.
The precision of Anderson's visual aesthetic is a perfect match for the medium of stop-motion, and I enjoy it immensely when a filmmaker who started working in live-action decides to stretch themselves and delve into the world of animation. Too often it's the other way around, leading to the idea that animation is something that a filmmaker graduates from.
There's clearly no malicious intent behind the film's more misguided decisions and cultural blind spots. Obvious craft and care were taken with the animation in "Isle of Dogs," but without the same thought given to its thematic ideas, the film is an entertaining adventure story which also ends up unintentionally demonstrating the slim line between appreciation and appropriation.