In Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, runaway kids Sam and Suzy stumble across the corpse of a dog with an arrow in it. Suzy asks, “Was he a good dog?” Sam replies, philosophically, “Who can say?”
This New Yorker cartoon caption was a highlight of that movie—heartlessly debonair and tonic among the swoonier parts. But in Anderson’s crafty yet off-putting Isle of Dogs, this kind of coolness is a tonal mistake.
In the film, a dog flu plagues 2038 Japan. Kobayashi, the ominous mayor-for-life of Megashima, takes action before the disease jumps to humans. All dogs are sent to a quarantined island. Kobayashi’s ward and “distant nephew,” Atari (Koyu Rankin), flies in a makeshift airplane to rescue his exiled pet Spots, (voiced by Liev Schrieber). It crashes and Atari is marooned. Meanwhile, a pack of bad-off mutts surviving on garbage are catalyzed into action by Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray dog for life, whose motto is “I bite.”
Anderson’s animators work small, trying to capture a nation where people tend to swallow their emotions. But in a culture where the minimal is so important, Anderson crowds in his usual bric-a-brac—whether it’s the step-by-step sushi preparation or the flashcard-like listing of story elements.
Anderson, trying to keep Isle of Dogs from getting mired in overdone emotions, errs too far in the opposite direction. The result is something that doesn’t really arouse feelings, no matter how many animated dogs stare us down, sometimes with tears in their eyes.
The borrowings from The Lady and the Tramp work, as when the show dog Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) tells Chief she’s uncertain about finding a mate: “I wouldn’t want to bring puppies into this world.” Anderson channels the old classic cartoons, staging dogfights that are giant clouds of dust with limbs emerging from it. But he seems torn between honoring what the Japanese call “beauty in sadness”—mono no aware—and parodying it.