Much of the focus in Isle of Dogs lands on Chief. His arc mirrors other Anderson protagonists, difficult men who gradually realize the need for family and companionship. Compared to someone like Steve Zissou, Chief is more compelling in that his flaws are brought out by the world instead of some petty internal quirk or slight. He’s never had an owner, instead having to fight for every scrap of food he’s ever eaten. However, he’s still a dog, ingrained with millenia of coevolution alongside humans, and he simply cannot help himself in a series of affecting scenes where his walls are broken down by Atari’s love of his species. Anderson includes multiple instances of dogs crying, an image that works on a primal level. Cranston is perfect for a character who starts brittle and ends in a softer place, as his voice loses its Heisenberg edge in place of Walter White quavering. He voices Chief convincingly both as a stray in his element, ruler of all the garbage piles he can see, and as a willing companion ready to give up his cherished independence.
Cranston shares screen time with a vast cast of Anderson repertory players, and when a director chooses to repeatedly work with some of the best actors in the business, it’s no surprise that the voice quality here is exceptional. Chief’s pack includes Ed Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, and Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton plays a TV-obsessed pug, F. Murray Abraham is a half-blind wise-dog, and Frances McDormand plays an eager translator. All, and several others, are immediately recognizable, especially Goldblum, but the film loses little for it. It’s charming to hear Murray’s voice come out of a sweater-clad dog. One could listen to Swinton portentously make predictions indefinitely. Alongside these icons and, ahem, dogged professionals, newcomer Rankin also does well, fluctuating between furious righteousness and tender commands.
Rankin becomes more impressive in his delivery as it dawns on the viewer that, for the non-Japanese speaker, his dialogue is going to undecipherable. As he’s done previously, Anderson does not include subtitles for anyone not speaking English. This makes perfect sense in the early going, as the dogs can’t understand humans of any nationality and the film is primarily about them. The language barrier doesn’t prevent the viewer from catching motivations or emotions in the Japanese cast, turning the film into something of an acting exercise that they ably pull off. However, with the inclusion of McDormand’s translator and Tracy, the film becomes somewhat baffling. Unless I’m vastly underestimating Western comprehension of Japanese, he essentially chooses to sideline his Japanese cast in favor of his American cast.
Coupled with the increasingly annoying presence of Tracy as the only one capable of putting the pieces together and taking action, the grotesque nature of some Japanese characters, and the way that Anderson makes Kurosawa’s seminal samurai films into a stylish pastiche, Isle of Dogs alternates between deep admiration of Japanese culture and an alienating, near-insulting distance to it. When Anderson is lovingly showing the precision in the preparation of a sushi dinner, it’s apparent what drew him to make a film set in Japan. When he’s rallying the entire country around the whitest of white girls, he’s remaking The Last Samurai. Nothing about Isle of Dogs insists that it could only have been made in Japan, such that the version set off the coast of British Colombia with humans speaking in Peanuts-esque gibberish would be the exact same movie.
It’s a shame that Anderson spends so much time in Megasaki, because everything on Trash Island is downright delightful. When Anderson works with quirky adults, it’s often affected and insufferable. Children and animals, however, get more leeway, as my favorite Anderson film Moonrise Kingdom can attest to. Even the execrable Family Guy understands that having a talking dog occasionally remember that he’s a dog is always good for a laugh, and Anderson knows this, too. Flu-affected dogs on Trash Island sneeze a lot, and it’s always amusing. Rival packs discussing potential peaceful solutions over a bag of fresh garbage is a premise that works like a Far Side cartoon. Away from humor and into pathos, Isle of Dogs succeeds across species. It features a clinical transplant procedure that’s as beautiful as any scene involving an open wound can be. Isle of Dogs gets so much right while still having a complete dud of a character driving much of the plot. Anderson got in trouble for backgrounding foreign characters at the expense of English-speaking ones in Darjeeling Limited, and it doesn’t appear he’s learned much from that experience. This is the Anderson film I’ve wanted to love the most, but unlike Chief, I don’t have a biological urge prompting me to eat the biscuit out of Anderson’s palm. B-