Who let the dogs out? Wes Anderson's "Isle of Dogs."

Who let the dogs out? Wes Anderson's "Isle of Dogs."

Fox Searchlight Pictures/Fox Searchlight Pictures

For a nice sustained laugh, go check out the new Honest Trailers web short that shows how all Wes Anderson films are basically the same. From camera angles and composition to major themes and character dynamics, the Houston-bred filmmaker has a reliable bag of tricks he employs, whether the film in  question chronicles a precocious prep school prodigy, a Jacques Cousteau-like sea adventure or an animated dystopian romance about a Japanese island where man's best friend is brutally quarantined.

Welcome to Isle of Dogs, a deeply imaginative and typically fastidious slice of Wes World. Even with a narrative that feels more like a diagram, even with some questionable decisions regarding cultural translation (more on that shortly), Isle of Dogs bursts with its maker's drollery and contagious passion for the medium of film.

Set in a near future beset by mass panic, political corruption and canine flu, Isle of Dogs — say it a few times fast and you may realize you, too, love dogs — is part rescue adventure, part conspiracy movie and entirely Anderson. The furry quintet at the film's center — Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) — swap rumors, bicker over every group decision and say things like "Be that as it may." Squint a little and they could be the Royal Tenebaums.

Their circumstances, however, are dire. Like the rest of the dog population, they've been dumped on Trash Island by the glowering mayor of Megasaki (Kunichi Nomura), who sports a massive cat tattoo on his back. The dogs are set to die on a garbage-strewn archipelago that recalls the future wasteland of Wall.E. But the mayor's nephew and ward (Koyu Rankin) isn't having it. He crash lands a small aircraft on the isle and joins forces with his new best friends to find his lost, beloved pooch, Spots Kobayashi (Liev Schreiber).

The dogs travel the island via overhead funicular. They fight robot dogs, leaving a cloud of dust with every altercation. There's something old-timey about Anderson's futurism, a love for the timing of classic cartoons and early fantasy shorts like those produced by Georges Méliès. Anderson is an old soul; his aesthetic might be described as diorama chic. Beneath all that, he's also something of a sentimentalist.

Isle of Dogs showcases Anderson's appreciation for and knowledge of Japanese film, from the symmetrical, eye-level compositions of Yasujiro Ozu to Hayao Miyazaki's color-blasted flights of fancy. This is one reason I have trouble buying into the charges of cultural insensitivity and appropriation leveled by some critics. The complaints cover a variety of alleged malfeasance, from not providing subtitles for Japanese characters (although the film has more speaking parts for Japanese actors than any recent American movie I can think of) to the character of an American foreign exchange student (voiced by Greta Gerwig) who wears her hair in an Afro and leads, from her perch at the student newspaper, an investigation of the government's anti-canine practices.

I get some of the complaints, but I also think they present a slippery and dangerous slope. If we raise hell when a white male filmmaker uses Japanese culture as the basis for a (lovingly detailed, highly imaginative) film in his long-established personal style, we run the risk of cultural isolationism. If we silo off certain filmmakers from making certain kinds of films set in certain cultures, we end up with a series of silos. If we police the imagination, we suffer creative bankruptcy. This isn't Birth of a Nation. You'd have to look very hard to find anything malicious in Isle of Dogs. Unless, like me, you're a cat guy. I'd be all for a sequel about the evils of anti-feline tyranny.

Isle of Dogs (B+)

PG-13 (thematic elements and some violent images). 101 minutes.  In wide release. 

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