Superficially, Isle of Dogs dazzles. Wes Anderson’s second foray into stop-motion animation—following 2009’s unassailably wonderful Fantastic Mr. Fox—is full of delectable visual treats. Its endless cavalcade of gorgeously rendered minutiae is even more Wes Anderson-y than his last movie, 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which at times felt like a clearinghouse for Wes Andersonisms.
This time, the director’s grade-school diorama aesthetic floods your ocular circuits with a retro-futuristic version of Japan, where all the dogs of Megasaki City have been exiled to Trash Island following an outbreak of snout fever. Anderson and his animators leave no detail unfussed-with; on a technical level, Isle of Dogs is leaps and bounds more advanced than Fantastic Mr. Fox—the deliberate herky-jerkiness of that film has vanished, replaced by a refined style of stop-motion that’s breathtaking in its elegance, even as it depicts Trash Island’s mountains of maggoty, flea-ridden refuse.
In that sense, Isle of Dogs is marvelous. Anderson’s team of artists and animators—including two of Portland’s own, art director Curt Enderle (The Boxtrolls) and production designer Paul Harrod (The PJs)—have created a fully realized world whose discernible artifice encourages us to suspend our disbelief.
Anderson’s best films carry a furtive undercurrent of emotion, from Rushmore’s grieving, motherless Max Fischer to Moonrise Kingdom’s angry tweens. Isle of Dogs is much more transparent in its attempt to pluck your heartstrings: The main plot is the familiar story of a young boy looking for his lost dog.
Things get a little more... complicated below the surface. Anderson, a white American who was born in Houston, has a palpable appreciation for—and a stylistic kinship with—the aesthetic elements of Japanese culture. You could liken his filmography to a series of bento boxes or origami designs, its tidy geometric shapes immaculately prepared, folded, and contained.
But Anderson’s depiction of Japanese humans in Isle of Dogs leaves something to be desired. In what initially seems like a clever tactic, the dogs all speak English while humans communicate in un-translated Japanese (important details are provided by an interpreter voiced by Frances McDormand). While this pulls us inside the dogs’ world, it flattens the depiction of the Japanese characters. Anderson—and the audience—remain Western outsiders looking in; we can observe and enjoy the surface-level sensations of his deliberately constructed version of Japan, but in the end, Anderson’s obsessive cataloging of Japan’s cultural signifiers (sushi, sumo wrestlers, woodblock prints) contain little more depth than a “What I Saw on My Holiday” essay.
The other way Isle of Dogs comes up short is through comparisons to Anderson’s own work. The best of his films carry a furtive undercurrent of emotion, from Rushmore’s grieving, motherless Max Fischer to Moonrise Kingdom’s angry tweens. Isle of Dogs is much more transparent in its attempt to pluck your heartstrings: The main plot, while embroidered with all kinds of Andersonian silliness, is the familiar story of a young boy looking for his lost dog. It’s almost too obvious a setup, and there’s no sneakiness to its emotional payoff, something Anderson has managed exquisitely in the past.
But all in all, Isle of Dogs is worth recommending. Yes, it’s probably the most problematic thing Anderson’s done. It’s also the most intricate, the most alluring, the most frivolous. No one constructs worlds like he can, and that this one is as imperfect as it is serves as a reminder that we should always be looking beyond the sparkly details—even when they’re as plentiful and charming as these.