Expect to wag your metaphorical tail in delight over Wes Anderson’s new animated joyride into a canine universe with political undercurrents sure to strike a human chord. It’s art cinema instilled with a child’s sense of wonder – which is also true of of the quirky auteur’s live-action films, from Rushmore to The Grand Budapest Hotel. Following 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson returns to stop-motion and puppets, but this time with a deep bow to Japan and its iconography. Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu are sampled frequently. Cultural appropriation? Maybe, but it works like a charm.
Co-written by Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura, Isle of Dogs is set in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki about 20 years into the future. When snout-fever, a.k.a. dog flu, hits the metropolis, a fear-mongering Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by co-writer Nomura and carved to recall Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai) uses the pandemic as an excuse to deport all dogs. “Whatever happened to man’s best friend?” asks a concerned translator (Frances McDormand), as these four-legged citizens are shipped off to Trash Island, a toxic wasteland where survival is iffy at best. If you’re thinking of Trump’s harsh immigration policies, you’re on the right track.
The first pooch is go is Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber), a short-haired Oceanic speckle-eared sport hound who happens to be the beloved pet of the mayor’s orphaned ward, 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin). So naturally the boy hops in his prop plane and flies – or rather, crash-lands – to the rescue. He gets help from a scruffy canine team led by Rex (Edward Norton), along with Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Another ally is Chief, a stray that the terrific Bryan Cranston intones with just the right notes of confidence and genuine vulnerability (“I’m not a violent dog, I don’t know why I bite”). The mutt flirts with a show dog named Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), but touchingly grows to understand the love between Atari and Spots.
That basic boy-and-his-dog story anchors the film even as the writer-director unleashes a whirlwind of subplots and side trips that would topple a lesser movie. He makes the clever decision to turn all barks into spoken English while Japanese humans converse, unsubtitled, in their native tongue – it sounds like chaos but pays off handsomely. There are critics who believe Anderson’s attention to detail is obsessive, too fussed over to feel alive. Yet the details are what gives Isle of Dogs its vibrancy and allure. And despite the film’s dark subtext, Anderson keeps the action fizzy all the way through.
As for the animation, it’s spectacular in every sense of the word and lifted by a superb Alexandre Desplat score, featuring taiko drums, that marks a new career peak for the Oscar-winning composer of The Shape of Water. Whether it’s a junk pile floating in the Pacific or two dogs engaged in a staring contest, the film pinwheels with a visual punch and comic buoyancy that’s totally irresistible. Darkness falls when Kobayashi sends an army of robotic attack dogs to finish the job on Trash Island. It’s then that the dogs must rise up against their genocidal human oppressors. They receive a major boost from Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), an American foreign exchange student and friend of Atari’s, who exposes Kobayashi’s nefarious plan.
Anderson will draw flak for putting a white westerner in the role of savior. But his sympathy for these doggie dreamers – and by extension every outsider – is ingrained in the film’s DNA. It doesn’t take intervention from Trash Island’s canine elders, Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) and Oracle (Tilda Swinton), to organize a resistance. The residents of Isle of Dogs are more than up to the job. Atari calls them “the finest beings I have ever known.” Who’s to argue?
A scene from Wes Anderson’s return to animation, ‘Isle of Dogs.’ Watch below.