"Isle of Dogs" is the newest film from acclaimed director Wes Anderson, and his second stop-motion animation feature after 2009's "The Fantastic Mr. Fox". This new outing is rife with the typical Anderson visual peculiarities. Fans of his flat, meticulously detailed shot compositions will not be disappointed. With the control over fine details afforded by the medium of stop-motion animation, Anderson is able to furnish and frame his film with precision-cut orderly arrangements. However, missing this time is Anderson's penchant for memorably quirky characters. There are quirks abound, but it does not add up to anything memorable.
In the near future, the Japanese city of Megasaki is faced with a flu epidemic affecting the local canine population. The cat-loving mayor, Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), riles up anti-dog sentiment and decrees that all dogs in the city be banished to an abandoned offshore waste disposal site. Thus we have the titular Isle of Dogs (which is sadly never referred to as such by any of the characters, instead only being referred to as "Trash Island"). A roving gang of dogs, voiced by an all-star cast (Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and more), happen upon a young boy who has crash-landed an airplane onto Trash Island. The boy, Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), is the mayor's orphaned nephew and ward, who has come to the island in search of his dog, Spots. The dog pack agrees to aid Atari in his search, although whether or not the dogs can communicate with humans is never clearly established and remains a confusion throughout the film.
Despite constant objections from Chief (Cranston), the only stray dog of the group, the dog gang leads Atari to the residence of two wise-dogs, who they believe may know the whereabouts of Spots. Chief's objections are worth noting, because he constantly refers to how the dogs are better off living without masters on Trash Island. Will he eventually come to find the joys of domestication and the comfort of Atari's company? The script telegraphs this so obviously you would be hard pressed to answer anything but "yes". At the behest of the wise-dogs, Atari and his canine companions head towards the farthest tip of Trash Island to find Spots, all the while being pursued by Mayor Kobayashi's paramilitary rescue teams. On the mainland, foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) begins investigating into Mayor Kobayashi's sinister plans for Trash Island, which could result in the elimination of the island's canine inhabitants. The two parallel plots convene in one of those movie climaxes where someone gives a speech that brings the in-universe listeners to tears but leaves the actual audience in the theater with dry eyes.
The strangest aspect of "Isle of Dogs" is the decision to have all the Japanese characters in the film speak their native tongue. This is not an inherently bad idea, but Anderson continually backpedals on this choice. Most of the plot-relevant Japanese dialogue is translated into English through the clunky injection of an on-site translator, who tells us everything that is being said under the pretense of international broadcasting. The foreign exchange student character only further serves to awkwardly cram in English translations and English dialogue. There are even some portions of the film in which Atari speaks to the dogs without any subtitles. In a live-action film the actor's facial expressions and body language would likely be enough to get the message across regardless of the language barrier, but with a stop-motion puppet the ability to communicate minutiae of expression is far more difficult. The effect is that many of Atari's bonding scenes with the dogs feel alienating and distant when they should be heartwarming. I would have preferred the movie to either use English subtitles for the Japanese dialogue or just have the Japanese characters speak English. Trying to meet somewhere in the middle comes across as waffling, as if the filmmakers (or more likely the higher-ups handling the financial side of things) did not think American audiences would watch a film with extensive subtitles.
Although there are some questionable choices regarding the film's use of multiple languages, "Isle of Dogs" still offers many of the pleasures of Anderson's other work. The design of Trash Island is particularly striking, with endless monochromatic expanses of trash, making something beautiful out of literal garbage. The animation is impressive as well, particularly a brief sequence in which one of Mayor Kobayashi's henchmen prepares sushi. Anderson's trademark flat shot compositions are at peak flatness here, with many of the wide shots in the film bearing a charming picture-book quality, like some sort of post-apocalyptic Richard Scarry illustration. Especially as a follow-up to the excellent "Grand Budapest Hotel", "Isle of Dogs" feels like Anderson resting on his laurels. The expected stylistic panache is there, but the story is predictable and the characters are not as memorable as those of previous Anderson films. "Isle of Dogs" is cute enough if you love dogs, but for a Wes Anderson movie it leaves something to be desired.