\Wes Anderson’s unabashedly quirky, quasi-dystopian Isle of Dogs is a pleasing rub to our collective bellies.
The writer/director’s second stop-motion animated film — alongside the brilliant Fantastic Mr. Fox — is an ambitious effort honoring Japanese cinema and the scrappy nature of underdogs (pun intended). But at its core, Isle of Dogs (★★★ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters nationwide Friday) is also a deep and adventurous exploration of canines as man’s (and one particular kid’s) best friend.
In the near future, Nagasaki City has reached a saturation point with its abundant pooch population, and after an outbreak of dog flu (aka “snout fever”), the town’s corrupt, cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) exiles affected pets to nearby Trash Island. That’s where 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin), an orphan taken in by the mayor, heads after hijacking a prop plane in search of his bodyguard dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber).
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Atari discovers a never-ending landscape of garbage, as well as a pack of charismatic alpha dogs: Rex (Edward Norton) is the de facto leader who misses the good life, King (Bob Balaban) yearns for his days as the Doggy Chop spokesdog, Boss (Bill Murray) still wears the uniform of his stint as a little league mascot, and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) is a literal gossip hound.
The boy gravitates toward a sometime member of the gang, a grumpy stray named Chief (Bryan Cranston), and Atari and his furry new pals go on a weird journey of friendship while nefarious forces plot canine extinction. The story meanders in the middle as it flits between parallel stories on Trash Island and subplots back in Megasaki City, but like a loyal pooch, eventually finds its way home.
Boss (voiced by Bill Murray) is a former little league
Boss (voiced by Bill Murray) is a former little league mascot living on Trash Island in “Isle of Dogs.” (Photo: FOX SEARCHLIGHT)
As with Mr. Fox, Anderson has rounded up a litter of jaw-dropping talent — many of them alums of his animated and live-action fare — and they all fit their adorably wacky characters. Scarlett Johansson co-stars as Nutmeg, a glam showdog who can still learn some new tricks, while F. Murray Abraham and Tilda Swinton play the wise duo Jupiter and Oracle. Frances McDormand voices one of the human roles, the mayor’s English-language interpreter who’s increasingly invested in all the drama, and Greta Gerwig is an American foreign-exchange student and instigator of a pro-dog youth rebellion. Even Yoko Ono comes along for the animated shenanigans as a research assistant trying to find a dog flu cure.
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The hallmarks of Anderson’s movies are all here, from symmetrically framed shots and dry humor to whimsical tangents and overly purposeful narration (courtesy of Courtney B. Vance). His usual style is heightened by the Asian setting, and Anderson takes an intriguing tack with communication: The citizens of Megasaki City speak in Japanese, with their language mostly conveyed through expressions and emotions rather than subtitles.
Rex (voiced by Edward Norton) comes to the rescue in
Rex (voiced by Edward Norton) comes to the rescue in “Isle of Dogs.” (Photo: FOX SEARCHLIGHT)
More familiar is Trash Island, which exudes an odd hominess even littered with maggot-infested food and an inexplicable theme park in the middle of it. Anderson nails certain canine idiosyncrasies and little details of its realistic-looking denizens, like the way they sneeze sporadically and how their demeanor around a certain human changes over time. (Chief, who’s initially skeptical of Atari, grows closer to the kid on their quest.)
At the same time, their tussles — usually characterized by a roiling cloud of dust with paws and legs sticking out — have a cartoonish quality. A movie full of animated dogs will of course appeal to small children, but Isle of Dogs is best for bigger kids: One canine loses an ear and the central pack gets in a lot of harrowing circumstances.
Isle is an enjoyable follow-up to Anderson’s masterpiece The Grand Budapest Hotel, and the director has rarely been this heartening with his fare. Fetch him some snacks because this is a good Dogs.