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‘Isle of Dogs’ Is a Movie You Want to Reach Out and Touch

Wes Anderson’s canine love story is a cultural crosscurrent—Japan by way of America by way of Japan—that maximizes the director’s impeccable eye for clever curation

A treated image from ‘Isle of Dogs’ Fox Searchlight Pictures/Ringer illustration

There’s a running gag in Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson’s new stop-motion animated movie, that’s maybe annoying, maybe not. It’s a joke about culture. The movie is set 20 years in the future, in the fictional Megasaki City, Japan, which has been overrun by sick dogs. “Snout fever,” they’re calling it. Symptoms include aggression, loss of appetite, narcolepsy, and insomnia. The general public fear, at least as engineered by the local government, is that this dog flu will soon transmit to humans. Isle of Dogs tells the story of the politically calculated mass exile of dogs from Megasaki to a deserted site previously just known as Trash Island, the local dump. It also tells the story of the humans who love those dogs, including one—a 12-year-old boy named Atari—who journeys to the junkyard isle to save his dog, Spots. All told, half the characters in the movie are human; the other half, canine. All but one human are Japanese, and are mostly speaking Japanese. The dogs speak, well, dog.

Anyway, here’s the gag: no subtitles—at least, not for the dialogue. This isn’t a foreign film, but it’s in many ways a foreign-language movie, and it’s only too happy to remind us of that fact by making us keep track of what’s getting translated and what adamantly is not. “All barks have been translated into English,” a title card tells us early on, not long before we hear the dubbed voices of Edward Norton, Scarlett Johansson, and Liev Schreiber (among others) come out of the stop-motion mouths of a pack of dirty canines. The humans, meanwhile, speak Japanese, and unless they happen to be on television or in the midst of political debate, where live English translators have been provided, nothing they say gets translated. No dubbing, no subtitles—nothing. It all falls unknown on the English-speaking ear, save the occasional crossover word. But you quickly realize how little translation is needed.

That could be a lesson. But in a movie as playfully infatuated with cultural contamination as this one, it’s definitely a joke, a heavy wink at the blissed-out pleasures of getting lost in translation, forced to find meaning in other ways—a classic Anderson idea. It’s also, frankly, a blatant directorial trick. Telling a story with creative limits on language undoubtedly presents a bouquet of practical difficulties of the sort you’d need to be a Wes Anderson type to really appreciate and willingly conquer. This is a director who would of course make it harder for himself—rendering a movie set into a dollhouse, say—if the result was somehow richer, as ornate as it is full of soul. That’s a neat summation of Anderson’s approach to animation, really. He would of course favor a stop-motion world in which every artistic decision—every freckle, tooth gap, and bristling bit of hair—is a hand-crafted, bespoke testament to Anderson’s pervasive eye for detail. Like 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s first foray into stop-motion and animation broadly, Isle of Dogs is a movie you want to reach out and touch. Characters’ personalities are practically tactile in themselves; little details like a tooth Atari lost in a crash landing somehow come to speak for who he is.

I was moved by the central story, in which the young boy Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin) journeys to find Spots and instead finds a pack of other dogs on the isle, including Chief (Bryan Cranston), the sole stray among a quintet of hilariously overkept former pets with names like Rex and Boss. These other dogs, voiced by Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, and the like, lament their past cushy lives as doggy treat commercial stars and baseball mascots, like men in the midst of midlife crises lamenting their youth. It’s comedy—Norton, in particular, is perfect for it. Atari’s arrival sets Chief on his own journey of self-discovery (another Anderson trope) while a political scandal erupts back in Megasaki, thanks to Atari being the nephew of the six-term Mayor Kobayashi, who set this dog ban off in the first place. There’s a rich prehistory between man and dog that Anderson gleefully dreams up as background to all of this, and I’ll leave it to the movie to reveal it—suffice it to say dog-man relations shouldn’t be taken for granted, and that what’s called “The Age of Obedience,” a.k.a. the “man’s best friend” era, was imposed, not a given.

But that makes the movie sound political, and it isn’t. It’s more of the Anderson same old, but steeped in more Akira Kurosawa and sumo wrestling, to name just two major cultural exports from Japan, than usual. Why are so many Anderson characters basically sentient collage art? I say that semi-affectionately; for me, these weirdos are basically exotic. Chalk it all up to the near-ritualistic overdose of cleverness and style by now synonymous with Anderson’s name, or to the hot streak of sentimentality that roars through each of his movies, reminding us that all that stylistic artifice isn’t due to a lack of humanity, but in fact due to an abundance of it—exhausting amounts of it, way too much. Anderson catches flak for repeating himself, topically, and it’s true that, canine or no, the characters here are your usual Anderson types: stylish, individualistic men whose inner fire is borne of a sense of abandonment; stylish women who are probably too cool to date those men; blundering but effective authority figures; lookers-on who’ve got so much of their own flavor they consistently hijack every scene in the movie, and so on.

But per usual it’s Anderson’s methods that fascinate and entertain the most. Anderson’s relationship to “animation” as such has intrigued me since Fantastic Mr. Fox. It’s the voicework that caught me, both there and here, and how allergic Anderson is to making his characters’ voices big, zany—“animated.” Jason Schwartzman’s sullen teenager in Mr. Fox thoroughly sounds like one; and rather than sounding like she’s trying to leap offscreen, Meryl Streep (in the same movie) sounds like she’s sitting right next to you, casually asking you to pass the cream and sugar. Isle of Dogs does have its share of overlarge human personalities, however, in the bad guys Mayor Kobayashi and his Frankensteinish sidekick, Major-Domo, and you’d be right to worry that the movie is traipsing into stereotype territory.

It’s complicated. Isle of Dogs is visually dynamic in a way that reminds you not only who directed this movie, but also who that director’s influences are. It’s the little things, like the way Anderson stylishly foregrounds characters looking out at the horizon, that feel blatantly borrowed from, among other sources, classic American Westerns, which had in turn borrowed more than a few tricks from overseas, in the movies of Kurosawa (Yojimbo and Seven Samurai being prime examples) and others. It’s the kind of cultural crosscurrent Anderson would love: Japan by way of America by way of Japan.

Is that problematic? We already know Anderson makes movies about, and arguably for, hipsters, and that his films have been subject to the same criticisms that plague hipster culture broadly—namely, the blind borrowing of other cultures and the effete cosmopolitan posturing that comes with it. I’ve tended to feel that the minority characters in Anderson’s movies aren’t ciphers, but rather testaments to who got there first: who invented the styles Anderson’s white characters are drawing from. The three brothers of The Darjeeling Limited are a mess of borrowed styles—one has literally copped random items of his dead father’s clothes—and never seem to be of any place in particular, being displaced in every possible way. They lack a center, which, in that movie, is a source of grief and confusion. That, to me, is the white hipster’s condition: rather than dominate any authentic culture or style, they are excluded from them all. It’s a condition of having to borrow. Hipsters can only ever approximate the cultures they mimic, and what I see in Anderson’s movies, with all their fussy production value and ornate style, is the same celebration of that hipsterish ability to curate an identity that everyone criticizing him sees. But I also see characters struggling to escape the inherent dissatisfaction of having to curate an identity, and that stands out. I love Anderson’s movies, but I’ve never really envied the people in them.

Your mileage will undoubtedly vary, including in the case of this new movie, which is sad in the usual Anderson ways, but delightful, too. Even with happy endings, Anderson’s movies are bittersweet, and the fun, beautiful Isle of Dogs is no different. It’s a movie that feels out of time, blissfully unaware of the kinds of conversations—about culture, above all—that it seems destined to provoke. But the whimsical vision of its creator is more complicated than we give it credit for. And that can feel true even as one senses that in the throes of a world that’s quickly changing, Anderson—and the handcrafted, curated worlds of his movies—has largely stayed the same. Isle of Dogs, an old dog with few new tricks, asks: Is that such a bad thing?