Director Wes Anderson’s wonderfully original and thoroughly entertaining “Isle of Dogs” is even more of a treat than his earlier stop-motion animated feature, 2009’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Despite the obvious pun in the title, this imaginative adventure-comedy is one that even cat fanciers are likely to love.
After all dogs from a Japanese region have been unjustly exiled to Trash Island by a corrupt mayor with ulterior motives, his orphaned 12-year-old nephew Atari Kobayashi flies a small plane there in search of his beloved former bodyguard, Spots. A motley group of canines rescues the boy when his plane crashes, then joins his quest through a “WALL-E”-like landscape of garbage canyons and other obstacles. Meanwhile, murderously evil forces back home mobilize to retrieve Atari, after which they plan to euthanize every barely surviving dog on the island with wasabi poison.
That may sound a little edgy for a family-friendly film, but the movie’s charm lies in its ability to make even some of its grimmest moments both genuinely bittersweet and deadpan funny. The amusingly expressive characters and beautifully rendered settings (such as a dome-shaped shelter illuminated by light coming through colorful empty bottles, a wildly overgrown golf course, and the ominous interior of a crushing and compacting incinerator that’s like a perilous theme-park ride) are so eye-candy appealing that a coffee-table art book devoted to the film will be released in May.
“Isle of Dogs” also is sophisticated enough to avoid the kind of tiresome clichés that every other modern kiddie flick seems compelled to include. That means no butt-sniffing among the canines, no sitcom-style one-liner putdowns that are supposed to be funny, and no obnoxiously broad performances. Adults not only won’t be embarrassed to see this movie, they very likely may enjoy it even more than younger audiences.
These Animated Dogs Will Become Your Best Friends
Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) is terrific and even touching as the voice of Chief, the gruffly cynical would-be leader of the pack that assists Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin). Unlike the other dogs in the group, who led pampered pre-exile lives, Chief was a stray with trust issues and a tendency to bite. Cranston and the other actors are miked so closely that their voices are in-your-ear intimate and distinct even when they overlap, and his is especially warm and resonant.
Other cast members giving voice to man’s best friends are Edward Norton as the more reasonable pack leader Rex, Jeff Goldblum as the gossip-loving Duke, Scarlett Johansson as former show dog Nutmeg, Liev Schreiber as the bravely noble Spots, Bob Balaban as onetime Puppy Snaps spokesdog King, and Bill Murray as previous Little League team mascot Boss. F. Murray Abraham and Tilda Swinton are the information-dispensing odd couple Jupiter and Oracle, and Harvey Keitel is the remorseful leader of a group of mistreated aboriginal dogs.
The movie’s gimmick is that all of the dogs speak English, but there are nearly no subtitles for the Japanese-speaking characters (including Atari), although much of the Japanese dialog is translated into English by an onscreen translator (Frances McDormand). Because what happens is so well told visually, however, knowing what’s going on is never a problem.
The clever screenplay (by Anderson, from a story by him and Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Konichi Nomura), has enough fascinating plot elements, odd asides, and intriguing flashbacks to feel like an entire binge-watch feast in less than two hours. While Atari and his four-footed friends face perils ranging from human to mechanical to cannibal foes, the conspiracy on the mainland is uncovered by high-school journalists led by no-nonsense American foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig). Meanwhile, intrepid scientists work to come up with a cure for the malady used as the pretense for exiling the dogs in the first place.
Two Things To Agitate The Easily Offended
A couple of moments that may raise the hackles of the hashtag crowd (doesn’t everything these days?) are a dog’s personality change from surly to stalwart after a bath changes him from black to white, and the fact that it is a Caucasian American foreigner who leads the Japanese students to revolt against injustice. Those student protests, and the way the malevolent mayor achieves a Vladimir Putin-style election victory by eliminating his opposition, are examples of fortuitous political timing. A subplot about the effects of animal testing is appropriately moving, especially when the survivors are so overcome with grief that they mourn their former leader with forlorn howls.
The endearingly handcrafted stop-motion animation technique, in which models are carefully repositioned in small single-frame increments that are photographed to simulate movement when run in sequence, is supplemented by occasional hand-drawn animation. Two-time Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat, who composed the music for Anderson’s last three films (and won his first Oscar for “The Grand Budapest Hotel”), returns with another fittingly distinctive score.
Anderson’s two excellent live-action movies released in the nine years since “Fantastic Mr. Fox” are the quirky young-love comedy “Moonrise Kingdom” and the hilarious alternate-old-Europe farce “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” What “Isle of Dogs” has in common with these is an amiable storybook sincerity that never seems saccharine. Like all of his eccentrically offbeat films, dating back to “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore” in the 1990s, the only real genre label that can be applied to any of them is the term “A Wes Anderson Film.” And this is a definite “best in show” contender.