A dog dies in almost every Wes Anderson film. The director’s easily mocked daintiness serves as an unlikely nesting house for humanity’s darker streaks, from Oedipal complexes to police states. His daring tonal dissonance becomes bland melancholy with “Isle of Dogs,” his disappointing return to stop-motion animation. For all its infectious, scuzzy energy, its flatlined tone is more ASPCA than dog-eat-dog. Derivative in ways that range from unimaginative to irresponsible, it’s a minor work of major hubris.
Twenty years in the future, a fascistic dynasty ruling the fictional Japanese metropolis of Megasaki orders the banishment of all canines after secretly engineering a virus to afflict the species. After months of scraping by on their island of exile, a pack of four dogs and their de facto leader Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston) stumble upon the mayor’s son Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) looking for his loyal dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). With nothing better to do, the mutts become a search party to bring the pooch homeward bound.
The grouchy Chief’s gradual warming up to Atari and Spots’ shared compassion provides the bulk of the pathos in “Isle.” Anderson’s films have always been time-bound, privy to how evolving circumstances can alter relationships and attitudes. The journey from stray to man’s best friend is an affable dramatic foundation, but one with a foregone conclusion. What we’re left with are a generic protagonist, a few weak relationship arcs and the occasional dead-end flashback.
To some degree, Anderson recognizes the simplicity of his animals’ conflicts, and he trades character-driven action for situational wit in turn. There’s a panicked, pinball pacing to the honorable expedition. But by forgoing peril or loss, Anderson’s energy succumbs to larkish triviality. It’s the first of his films that feels predictable front to back. The climax is over before it even registers.
Instead of burrowing into its characters’ jealousies and failures, the film grounds itself in design to reach its sinister qualities. The dark undercurrent of eugenics is never sugarcoated, finding horror and humor in the morbid stakes. Sidetracking gags of small talk and the ironic faultiness of the island’s perilous infrastructure add a sensible tinge of parody.
It’s a shame, then, that the meticulousness comes with the extreme antagonization of Japan. Within the realm of stop-motion, where every gesture, detail and set is curated down to the inch, the cultural aesthetic of “Isle” reads as phony pastiche. From unnecessarily modifying toxic gases as “wasabi poison” to the sinister portrayal of preparing Japanese cuisine, Anderson plasters his playfulness atop every signifier he can think of. “Damn it, I’ve got a crush on you,” says Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), the Midwestern foreign exchange student who comes to lead a political revolution against her host country, in the same aw-shucks tone that Anderson probably used when he first discovered pagodas.
The film follows its opening with a statement that all characters speak in their native tongues, with the caveat that all barks have been translated into English. That ironic whimsy curdles once it’s revealed that no Japanese characters are subtitled — an inherently racist aestheticization of language.
Atari possesses a feisty frustration characteristic of youth. Every other person is the opposite: a wrinkled, brainwashed, screaming menace, wearing the occasional outrageous dragon tattoo. None of the Japanese characters are allotted any semblance of interiority until the climactic heel-turns come to pass — they instead serve as antagonistic others, their mode of communication fashioned into an aural ornament. In spite of the unmissable craft, their portrayal occasionally recalls the crudeness of World War II-era propagandist cartoons.
The unparalleled handiwork of “Isle” keeps it idly watchable. The style never succumbs to outright suffocation. Each animal’s fur is rustled by the seaside breezes in its own unique way, and a fine Alexandre Desplat score brings out Anderson’s musicality.
Though it remains admirable that Anderson continues to subtly push his form, this setting and story are ultimately flashy dead ends. There’s no sense of the ideas that have shaped the aesthetics he’s trafficking in, just that we’re supposed to be endeared by a guy who was tickled by the blunt organization of a bento box.
“Isle of Dogs” opens tonight at California Theatres.
Jackson Kim Murphy covers film. Contact him at [email protected].