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Wes Anderson's 'Isle of Dogs' is often captivating, but cultural sensitivity gets lost in translation

Times film writer Jen Yamato and film critic Justin Chang discuss Wes Anderson's "Isle of Dogs" and the line he toes between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation.

What do you do after you've made yet another beautiful film in a career defined — some might say stymied — by an obsessive devotion to beauty?

If you're Wes Anderson, the writer-director behind such meticulously crafted art-house miniatures as "Moonrise Kingdom" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel," maybe you try giving ugliness a chance. Or rather, you set yourself the challenge of making ugliness beautiful, of finding ravishment in a bleak dystopian panorama strewn with toxic waste sites, abandoned factories and towering heaps of rubbish.

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Being Wes Anderson, you then cobble together a story in which the underdogs populating this grim landscape are actual dogs, voiced by a human cast that includes several regular collaborators (Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, etc.) and given form and movement by astonishingly lifelike canine puppets. And because all this is taking place in Japan, you fill the frame with references to Kabuki theater, sumo wrestling, haiku poetry, the paintings of Katsushika Hokusai and the films of Akira Kurosawa — all set to a dramatic chorus of taiko drumbeats that is merely one element of Alexandre Desplat's ever-surprising score.

This canine adventure "Isle of Dogs" takes place in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki, where all dogs have been exiled to Trash Island, a floating wasteland that Wes Anderson, his cinematographer and production designers have brought to life in all its beautiful ugliness.

That's as close as I can get to providing an aesthetic rationale for "Isle of Dogs," Anderson's madly eccentric ninth feature and his second foray into animation after 2009's "Fantastic Mr. Fox." But the effort is probably futile: If there is a reason to cherish this often captivating, sometimes irritating, unavoidably perplexing movie, it's that its mere existence seems to defy rational explanation. It is by turns savage and soulful, mangy and refined, possessed of an unmistakable pedigree and yet boldly resistant to categorization. It's a shaggy Frankenmutt of a movie, dressed in artisanal fur and infested by bespoke fleas.

In "Fantastic Mr. Fox," the slow, painstaking animation process seemed, if anything, to accelerate Anderson's narrative energies and liberate his visual imagination. Stop-motion, which requires an invisible, all-controlling hand to create the illusion of fluidity, was an intuitive medium for this most exacting of directors and his intricate, diorama-like sensibility. On a pure frame-by-frame basis, "Isle of Dogs" is a triumph of invention and micro-detail, a bravura showcase for cinematographer Tristan Oliver's impeccable widescreen compositions and the ingenious bento-box elegance of Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod's production design. For better and for worse, it's Wes Anderson unleashed.

The plot is basically "Mad Max: Furry Road." It begins some 20 years in the future, in the fictional Megasaki City, where the powerful, pro-feline Kobayashi dynasty has long waged war against man's best friend. (Cat lovers might chafe at that, but we'll get to the film's representational issues in a moment.) Amid a city-wide epidemic of "dog flu," the scheming Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) has ordered that the afflicted animals be deported to a floating pre-apocalyptic wasteland called Trash Island.

These dogs are — forgive me — a pretty pugnacious bunch. When they fight, which is often, they kick up a giant white cloud that resembles an exploding cotton-ball factory. There's a lot to fight about on Trash Island, where disease runs rampant, food is scarce and danger lurks behind every turn. But there is still goodness to be found in the wide eyes and battered hearts of these abandoned canines, namely Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Murray) and Duke (Goldblum), who come to the rescue of a 12-year-old boy pilot, Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), when his plane crash-lands on their island.

Atari, the mayor's rebellious, brave-hearted nephew, is the only Megasaki resident loyal enough to have come back for his beloved dog — in this case, a "short-haired oceanic speckle-eared sport hound" named Spots (Liev Schreiber). When Spots is nowhere to be found, Atari is aided in his seemingly hopeless mission by the aforementioned friendly foursome, and also, reluctantly, by a grouchy stray named Chief (Bryan Cranston), who opposes domestication of any kind.

What happens next in this clever, multi-chaptered story (which Anderson conceived with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Nomura) will surprise no one familiar with the writer-director's work. New friendships are cemented and dastardly political conspiracies are exposed. Young people are shown to possess the kind of integrity and courage that shames the so-called grown-ups in their midst. There's a hint of mongrel romance between Chief and a posh show dog named Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), and prescient visions courtesy of a TV-addicted pooch named Oracle (Tilda Swinton).

There are also isolated moments of human-dog bonding, some of them hauntingly scored to the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band's "I Won't Hurt You," that transform these canines from mere puppets into deep repositories of soul. These moments of stillness feel essential in a movie that is otherwise happy to overwhelm you with narrative incident and textural detail; in some ways, Anderson's battle-ready Kurosawa tribute cries out to be tempered by the more contemplative spirit of a filmmaker like Kenji Mizoguchi.

It’s in Anderson’s handling of the story’s humans that his sensitivity falters, and the weakness for racial stereotyping that has sometimes marred his work.


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Some, of course, will be offended by the mere invocation of these Japanese cinema giants in this particular context. The ever-contentious subject of cultural appropriation has haunted "Isle of Dogs" since before its recent premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, where Anderson won a directing prize. Bluntly put, does this white American filmmaker's highly selective, idiosyncratic rendering of an East Asian society constitute a sincere act of homage, or a clueless failure of sensitivity?

For what it's worth, every one of Anderson's films is an act of imaginative plundering — a crazy-quilt of popular touchstones and personal influences, tailored to a specific milieu, designed to flatter his sophistication and the viewer's as well. Anderson's appreciation of Japanese culture is nothing if not wide-ranging: While it's no surprise to see him repurpose screen painting and pagoda architecture as superior design elements, his movie shows an admirable willingness to embrace the weird, the unnerving and the grotesque.

And besides, aren't those dogs amazing? They are indeed. But tellingly, it's in the director's handling of the story's human factor that his sensitivity falters, and the weakness for racial stereotyping that has sometimes marred his work comes to the fore.

Anderson, a stickler for verisimilitude even in the weirdest situations, has the human residents of Megasaki City speak their native Japanese, a choice that would seem respectful enough except for the conspicuous absence of English subtitles. Much of the Japanese dialogue, especially Atari's, has been pared down to simple statements that non-speakers can figure out based on context and facial expressions; longer, more complicated exchanges are translated aloud by a handy on-screen English interpreter (Frances McDormand).

The dogs, for their part, all speak clear American English, which is ridiculous, charming and a little revealing. You can understand why a writer as distinctive as Anderson wouldn't want his droll way with the English language to get lost in translation. But all these coy linguistic layers amount to their own form of marginalization, effectively reducing the hapless, unsuspecting people of Megasaki to foreigners in their own city. Their assumed passivity is further underscored by the singularly unfortunate character of Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), an American foreign-exchange student who becomes the angry, heroic voice of Megasaki's pro-dog resistance. At one point, she even smacks down a scientist voiced by Yoko Ono. (Yoko Ono!)

I can hear your indignant protests already: This isn't really Japan, stupid. It's Wes Anderson Land, and everyone here ultimately speaks his language and his language alone. I get it. I like Wes Anderson Land; it's always a fun place to visit. But some parts are less fun than others, and what we see of it in "Isle of Dogs" is finally ugly in ways beyond what even its maker could have intended.

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'Isle of Dogs'

(In English and Japanese)

Rating: PG-13, for thematic elements and some violent images

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Playing: In general release

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