Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson’s quirky new animated feature that debuted at the SXSW Film Festival this past weekend, is beautifully animated, heartfelt and hilarious. Kids and adults will enjoy it, even if they’re not dog lovers. But it’s also Anderson’s most political film, considering it’s about a despised group blamed for starting a health epidemic and then forcibly deported into a land they’ve never known.
Isle of Dogs takes place 20 years into the future in the fictional Japanese metropolis of Megasaki. Dogs have begun overcrowding the city and succumbing to a widespread epidemic of “snout fever,” a condition that makes dogs sickly, irritable and generally frightening.
In response, Megasaki’s Mayor Kobayashi — a man who hails from a long bloodline of anti-dog cat-lovers — issues a decree banning all dogs from the city limits and shipping them out to an island filled with trash and abandoned buildings.
Atari, a 12-year-old boy, flies to the island in the hope of finding his deported dog Spots. Hiro is befriended by a pack of five dogs — voiced by Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Bryan Cranston and Bob Balaban — who help him navigate the island and avoid the mayor’s assaultive rescue efforts (which includes robo-mutts, abduction drones and men armed with tazers and retractable dog-catching nets).
While Atari searches the Island, bushy-haired American exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) suspects Kobayashi of using the canine flu epidemic as a political ploy to help ensure his re-election. She believes canine flu might actually have a cure and suspects nefarious reasons for suppressing the small but vocal minority of pro-dog advocates.
The film follows their two stories in tandem and capably handles the Japanese language barrier by translating most of the Japanese-speaking characters or sprinkling their utterances with helpful English loanwords. All of the dogs speak in English.
But while Anderson obviously appreciates Japanese culture, his film also deals in appropriation of stereotypes though to the director’s credit, roughly half of the film’s speaking cast is Japanese, and one of the film’s four writers, Kunichi Nomura (also Mayor Kobayashi), is as well. (The other writers of Isle of Dogs include Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola.)
The film also avoids using Japan entirely as a stylish backdrop, an egregious mistake he made with his un-charming white privilege travel story The Darjeeling Limited, but the cultural handling in Isle of Dogs isn’t perfect. The film’s major speaking roles are all done by white actors, most evil characters speak in untranslated Japanese and his cartoonish conception of Japan relies on a populace still swayed by samurai folktales and the power of haiku.
And yet, despite the missteps of Isle of Dogs, the film carries an important and perhaps timeless message about the inhumanity of demonizing and deporting living creatures. The dogs’ life on Trash Island is desolate and cruel; they’re subject to the elements, forced to fight for survival and forage for maggoty scraps and have no recourse if they’re sick or injured. It’s quite heartbreaking and politically pointed, even more so than Anderson’s comedic 2014 European war drama The Grand Budapest Hotel.
And yet, the brilliant writing, eye-catching stop-motion animation and vocal work by the talented cast of Isle of Dogs — which also includes A-listers Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Courtney B. Vance and Tilda Swinton — keep the film lighthearted and fun, despite the fact that its underlying story is the product of our dark political times.