In Wes Anderson’s dazzlingly but also puzzlingly realized (more on that in a moment) “Isle of Dogs,” a dystopian fable pitting man’s best friends against its worst fiends in a futuristic Japan, the writer-director proves again that in his hands, a bedtime story is more likely to be an over-stimulant than a narcotic.
When humans first met canines, each fortuitously emboldened a change in the other, and the same could be said for Anderson regarding stop-motion animation: cinema’s premier dioramist could finally go as micro-controlling as needed and still turn out his freest, most lovable work (2009’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox”), while an art form overwhelmed by its digitized brethren showed it could attract hip filmmaking talent and produce eccentric, artisanal masterworks.
“Isle of Dogs” isn’t the sly, maturely immature gem “Mr. Fox” remains — even with that phonic pun of a title — but it’s a mostly enjoyably overstuffed model kit of adventure ingredients: talking dog heroes, an intrepid boy aviator, an outspoken girl reporter, garbage playgrounds, mechanical worlds, robot peril and mischievous humor. It’s even, for this director, tantalizingly political, venturing into dark territory about such utopia-bursting ills as bigotry and authoritarianism.
And yet it’s still nth-degree Anderson in its visuals, wit, and personality, a carefully unfolded pop-up universe of influences (dig that “Seven Samurai” music shoutout), itemizations, tangents, analog textures, communication quirks (English-speaking dogs, non-subtitled Japanese humans), cartographic flourishes, and deadpan comic charm. Its profundity can easily bring out your inner parent, the kind in thrall to an imaginative kid’s attention to storytelling detail, even if the thread occasionally gets lost.
The story, dreamed up by Anderson, Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola and Konichi Nomura, takes place in the fictional Megasaki, years after a degree by corrupt Mayor Kobayashi (a reference to the frank-scarfing champion?) exiles all dogs to Trash Island over ginned-up fears of conditions called dog-flu, snout-fever, and “canine saturation.” (The mythical history of anti-dog sentiment is narrated in a dryly amusing prologue styled like ancient Japanese woodblock prints, and capped with, of course, a haiku.)
Trash Island — flat, monochromatic, and industrial — may be the bleakest setting in all of Anderson-dom, but it is exquisitely littered. When a bickering pack of roving ex-pets (voiced by Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban and Jeff Goldblum) and a battle-hardened stray named Chief (Bryan Cranston) investigate a downed plane on their waste-heap atoll, they discover 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin) — orphan ward to the Mayor (Nomura) — determined at all costs to find the loyal, beloved bodyguard companion named Spots (Liev Schreiber) who was stripped from his side years ago.
The appealingly motley island dogs, spurred by fond memories of their human-serving days, decide to help Atari in his quest, although their motivation rankles Chief, whose grizzled cynicism about obedience sparks the film’s funniest intra-canine banter. The boy’s disappearance back home, however, is just the crisis to push the Mayor (modeled like a composite of every venal Toshiro Mifune tough he ever played for Kurosawa) into an even nastier plan to eradicate all dogs. On his case, though, is an activist foreign exchange student (Greta Gerwig) who smells conspiracy.
To count the number of ways “Isle of Dogs” blares “Wes Anderson!” is pointless, but some of my favorite touches include the cotton-cloud chaos that signals a mutt melee, a breathtaking if graphic sushi-making digression, and the nicely pitched doggy-noir exchanges between Chief and a lushly-furred former show dog named Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson). If he’s gaining at all as a filmmaker, it’s in his craftier layering of narrative, comedy, and painstaking design so that they keep the whole engine moving instead of lingering, waiting to be regarded.
But there’s always that nagging sense that Anderson’s fondness for cultural appropriation — the India of “The Darjeeling Limited,” the vanished Europe of “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and now his Eastern Asia reverie — has more to do with décor-driven pleasures than a resonant inner identity.
It’s one thing to weave a fantasy about saving dogs, and set it in the Japanophilic backdrop of your movie-mad dreams, but there’s a careless insensitivity in evoking issues of internment and annihilation for what amounts to an expensive Japan-set flipbook, particularly if you aren’t even going to provide subtitles for the native characters, who are mostly archetypes anyway. (That aforementioned language gimmick starts out as a head-scratcher, and pretty much stays that.) Then there’s the movie’s A-list vocal talent, a curious case of white-voicing when it comes to its four-legged original characters, who are ostensibly Japanese dogs.
None of it’s done out of any meanness, but it eventually worms its way into your appreciation of Anderson’s otherwise meticulous, wry blend of puppetry, 2D expressionism and dollhouse technique. There is much to admire about how “Isle of Dogs” channels its filmmaker’s design-lab obsessions and neurotic humanity into often beautiful, smile-inducing images, even if you’re not quite ready to pat Anderson on the head after the trick is over and say, “Good boy.”