Wes Anderson indulges a number of his most frequent obsessions and stylistic tics in “Isle of Dogs,” the director’s second foray into stop-motion animation – following 2009’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” – and the result is likely to cause great delight to the filmmaker’s fans and youngsters alike. In regard to the latter, yes, the picture is way darker than your typical children’s film, but it’s a gamble worth taking for those who have kids. This is an often lovely – well, at least, narratively and thematically – film in which animal characters are more fully formed than a majority of the human ones.
The world of “Isle of Dogs” is fairly gloomy and depressing. As the film opens, we learn that in the future, the mean old mayor of fictional city Megasaki has banned all pups – as a response to a dog flu – to a trash-filled island that is crawling with vermin, rotten food, bugs, trash and dirty water. The mayor’s orphaned ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin), steals a small plane and flies to the island to rescue his dog, Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber).
Upon crash landing, the boy – whose Japanese dialogue is mostly not subtitled – meets a pack of wild dogs that includes the surly Chief (Bryan Cranston), who makes his distaste for humans known, as well as helpful Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban) and the gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Other pups on the island include the former show dog Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), Oracle (Tilda Swinton), Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) and Gondo (Harvey Keitel). Frances McDormand lends her voice as a translator for the mayor, while Greta Gerwig is Tracy Walker, a foreign exchange student with a huge blonde afro who believes the mayor is shady and wants to do something about it.
There are a fair amount of intriguing ideas at play here that struck me as particularly relevant. By giving the dogs most of the speaking parts and not translating most of the human dialogue, Anderson’s film forces the viewer to understand the experience of an outsider. And it’s hard to ignore that the central concept of the picture – a specific group of individuals being forced out of society by a ruler who utilizes scare tactics to demonize them – bears some resemblance to our current age of nativism.
Some have complained about Anderson’s take on Japanese culture – for example, the kid being named Atari or the fact that the opening sequence features some guys who look like sumo wrestlers banging gongs as the credits roll – and accused him of cultural appropriation. I don’t get the sense that Anderson is being culturally insensitive here, but rather that he is attempting a sincere homage to a culture that he loves. If anything, the film often struck me as if it were lampooning the way that westerners might view a culture that was different from their own. On the other hand, I could have probably done without the multiple haiku scenes.
“Isle of Dogs” is, much like Anderson’s other work, fussy in its details – and that is intended as a compliment, not a critique. In nearly every frame of the film, there’s something interesting going on. The picture is often visually dazzling and constantly attentive to what is going on in the foreground and background. It’s one of the most stunning animated films I’ve seen in a while.
The film is obviously a labor of love and one that took a significant amount of skill to bring to realization. The picture might not reach the level of thematic richness of Anderson’s best work – namely, “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” – but it’s a very well made, highly enjoyable and emotionally resonant addition to his body of work.