Japan’s kawaii aesthetic would so naturally lend itself to Wes Anderson’s twee sensibilities that it’s a wonder he doesn’t indulge more deeply in the island nation’s “culture of cuteness” in his second stop-motion feature, Isle of Dogs. Throw in a story about a boy and his pooch and Anderson has a recipe for extreme preciousness, something his distinctive work can certainly teeter towards at times, but by placing the main events of his film on a literal rubbish heap, the director balances cuteness with apocalyptic grime in a way that marks perhaps his most visually stunning film to date.

Exiled to the floating garbage pile of Trash Island by the tyrannical leaders of the fictional Megasaki City, these canines are a motley and mangy lot. Covered in filth, flecked with bugs and widely stricken with snout fever, they’re forced to fend for themselves as all dogs are banished from the mainland in the name of public good. The Holocaust-like theme, taking place in a country that was once part of the Axis Powers, is ever-present but not overly belabored. Anderson even imbues quirk into oppression with the presence of robotic dogs unleashed by the government to maintain order, and even some exiled organic dogs are shown to be fitted with explosive teeth they can detach and fire like missiles.

The plot revolves around one ragtag pack, a collective of self-described alpha dogs with strong, authoritative names like Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Their de facto leader is the fastidious Rex (Edward Norton), who insists on voice votes for practically any action the pack takes. The frequent lone dissenter is Chief (Bryan Cranston), who’s spent most of his life as a stray, admitting, “I bite.” Their rough-and-tumble existence on Trash Island—where newfound maggot-infested bags of food scraps can instigate adorable fight clouds—is interrupted one day by the appearance of 12-year-old boy Atari (Koyu Rankin), whose sputtering prop plane crash-lands into the rubbish. Like most human characters in the film, Atari only speaks in un-subtitled Japanese (an early title card explains that the dogs’ barks are “translated” into English for us), but despite not being able to understand him, Rex is able to work out that the boy is “looking for (his) lost dog, Spots.”

This sets into motion a plethora of hijinks that never quite reaches the madcap fun of Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), but nevertheless looks even better doing it. The film is a visual marvel, with each frame meticulously fussed over to the point that dog fur moves with the breeze and ticks silently emerge and burrow back into scruff. But the story follows the expected beats of a prickly outcast ultimately finding acceptance and rediscovering the capacity to love. It’s saccharine even by Anderson’s standards, but far more simplistic than most of his other films. A sideplot featuring Greta Gerwig’s freckled foreign exchange student, Tracy, visiting glowing-beaker-laden laboratories to uncover a conspiracy by the draconian Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) to suppress a dog-flu cure only ends up feeling like filler.

Isle of Dogs wants to say something about xenophobia and fear of otherness, and about the demonization of vulnerable groups, which is a timely and honorable enough message. But at times, the film seems to mine Japanese culture and exploit it for its perceived exoticism rather than use that setting for meaningful commentary. Making widely beloved pets the target of a genocidal dictator leaves little room for subtlety, and thematically this causes Anderson’s latest beautifully-rendered foray into stop-motion animation to rely upon its storytelling about offbeat outsiders pressing back against the establishment, which by this point in the director’s career is beginning to feel more than a little rote.

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