This is a movie that was born from a deep-seated love for Japanese cinema (everyone from Seijun Suzuki to Mecha-Godzilla gets a shoutout, and Kurosawa is so well-represented that the “Seven Samurai” theme plays twice), but that doesn’t prevent certain things from being lost in translation. As the opening title card makes clear, the humans speak in their native language (mostly un-subtitled Japanese), while the dogs bark in perfect English. It’s a bold and potentially problematic gambit, but one that respects Atari’s character while also surrounding him with the voices of Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, and — most important of all — Bryan Cranston, whose self-justifying tone is the perfect fit for the crucial role of Chief, a feral alpha who wasn’t bred to be housebroken.
In a film about demagoguery and fear-mongering that increasingly codes the dogs as unwelcome refugees, the fact that most of them are voiced by very famous white men is an intriguing reversal. “Everyone is a stray in the last analysis,” one of the pups insists, and those who have never been chased from their homes would do well to remember that.
On the other hand, it’s hard to rationalize why a white foreign exchange student voiced by Greta Gerwig ascends to a leadership role, Tracy’s savior complex the most troublesome element of a storyline that’s lousy with trouble (and lousy in general). In a film full of short-changed subplots, it’s a shame that so much energy is devoted to this one. While some of the film’s supporting characters only need a couple of lines to become immortal (case in point: Tilda Swinton voices a psychic pug named Oracle, which is somehow even better than it sounds), too many of them feel like the leftover table scraps of a meal that we only got to sniff at.
That’s a real issue for a movie that lacks the ineffable magic of Anderson’s other animated feature, a stop-motion masterpiece in which every hyper-precise moment syncs together in the kind of supernatural harmony that can only be achieved by accident. This one sags in the middle, and leaves divots in places that scream for more attention. There’s a stilted quality to “Isle of Dogs,” and not just because a number of lines aren’t as sharp as they should be, or because Anderson so delights in the endearing jerkiness that comes from animating on twos.
Make no mistake, the animation in this film is a truly stunning achievement. Trash Island might be a gray wasteland — the kind of place the Earth permanently reclaimed after the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami — but it’s crawling with life. Adorable rats scurry across the screen, while the alpaca wool that Anderson’s team used for dog fur bristles and whimpers like the characters grew it themselves.
Some passages combine several different modes of animation at once, contrasting the hard resin of the human characters against the anime-inspired 2D shadings that are used for the various newscast scenes. There are sumo fights and kabuki performances and all sorts of future tech that clashes against the traditional Japanese nods; if the puppet work in “Fantastic Mr. Fox” felt a little hesitant, the action here is downright cocky (Alexandre Desplat’s ferocious taiko drum score helps sell that confidence). At one point, Anderson generously devotes a minute of screen-time to a chef making tiny stop-motion sushi just because he can — every grain of rice needs to be just right, and it is.
Ultimately, however, the most striking thing about Anderson’s fastidiousness is that it’s all in done in the service of chaos. “Isle of Dogs” is a film about a world that’s corrupt to its core, a world that’s lost any sense of what it was supposed to be. Megasaki City is defined by the worst kind of wonder, where there’s so much to see that it becomes easy to look away from the ugliness. There’s a vortex of garbage the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean, but the most incredible thing about that fact is how easy it is to forget. Keep people focused on the wrong thing, and they’ll lose sight of how naturally the right thing occurs to them. That’s why Anderson is so drawn to stories about children (and man-children): They don’t even see the boundaries that adults are afraid to cross.
At heart, for all of the Wes Anderson wizardry, this is just a very simple story about a boy and his dog. And the dogs he meets while trying to find his dog. And maybe also the lady dogs those dogs want to hump. And don’t forget about the vast robot conspiracy that’s threatening to doom them all. But really it’s just about a boy and his dog, and they need each other for most of the same reasons that any of us need anyone. On their own, they don’t resonate quite as strongly as they should. But together they know who they are, and it’s who they want to be.
“Isle of Dogs” premiered at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival. It will open in theaters on March 23.