Considering Wes Anderson’s cinematic ouevre, there are three camps of viewers: the diehard fans (“Wes is a whimsical genius!”); the haters (“Insufferable! Culturally insensitive!”); and the rest of us: “I liked it OK; it looked great; it didn’t quite grab me, but I’m a Bill Murray completist”; and so on.
His latest film, the stop-motion-animated Isle of Dogs, is sure to draw predictable responses. The story takes place in a highly curated, Andersonian realm, the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki 20 years in the future. The mean mayor has banished all dogs to Trash Island (just what it sounds like). A boy named Atari finds his way to Trash Island, seeking his discarded pet. There, Atari is aided by a pack of dogs (variously voiced by Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum).
It’s a standard quest-and-redemption narrative, but rife with assorted trappings — language play (simultaneously translated Japanese, haikus); fantastic sets; a subplot involving scientists; flashbacks; a re-telling of a myth; and a mini-lesson in sushi preparation. In Anderson’s use of Japan and many of its cultural signifiers, there is a self-conscious “accessorizing” that borders on exoticizing another culture for entertainment. (Note, too, that villains are the Japanese people we literally cannot understand, and the heroes are the dogs voiced by recognizable American actors.) A charitable interpretation would chalk it up to homage, but “Japan” here feels as about as inauthentic, if still charming, as the skyway trash-conveyor the dogs use to traverse the island.
An animated movie about talking dogs set in a not-so-real place gives a filmmaker plenty of leeway to craft a story not beholden to the same old rules, so it’s a disappointment to see the female characters get typical short shrift. Among the humans is an American exchange student, Tracy (Greta Gerwig), who, while a person of action, is a hot mess of manic, conspiracy-mined and boy-crazy, trapped beneath a blonde Angela Davis ’fro. (Does this movie, with its already complicated outsider’s take on another culture, really need a white American savior?) And of all the dogs on the island — that is, every dog ever in Japan — only two females are featured: the glossy, unattainable beauty, Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), a former show dog; and a wife and mother of many puppies. C’mon, dude: There couldn’t have been a couple of feisty female dogs in the gang? This isn’t a movie about Navy SEALs, Franciscan Brothers or some other gender-restricted group. Give every dog its day!