Film Review: Isle of Dogs

Endlessly inventive animated tale of outcast dogs is a career highpoint for writer-director Wes Anderson.
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When Wes Anderson turned to stop-motion animation in 2009 with Fantastic Mr. Fox, his choice was surprising but not head-spinning—after all, his live-action features always had a hand-crafted feel, with their dense, meticulous and eccentric production design. Anderson has now returned to the medium with Isle of Dogs, and the result not only eclipses the wonderful Fox, it’s one of the richest and most dazzling films of his career.

Anderson, who wrote the screenplay and concocted the story with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura, took his inspiration from two sources: his love of Japanese cinema, particularly the contemporary crime films of Akira Kurosawa, and endearing tales of the love between a boy and his dog. Laid atop those elements are a wild sci-fi fantasy world and even a spirit of political resistance and passion for the (literal) underdog that have an inadvertent relevance in this age of POTUS 45 and his daily affronts.

Twenty years in the future, the dog-hating mayor of Megasaki City named Kobayashi has overreacted to an outbreak of canine flu and ordered all dogs, both wild and domesticated, shipped off to the isolated, filthy and aptly named Trash Island. There, we meet the quintet of desperate main protagonists: the level-headed Rex (Edward Norton), onetime baseball mascot Boss (Bill Murray), celebrity pet food “spokesdog” King (Bob Balaban), gossip addict Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and ill-tempered stray Chief (Bryan Cranston).

Things seem hopeless until 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin) crash-lands on the island in a prop plane; it turns out he’s the orphaned ward of the mayor, on a mission to find his beloved bodyguard dog Spots, the very first canine banished to Trash Island. Before long, Atari is leading his new friends on a journey to the other side of the island, where Spots may or may not be part of a rebel faction.

Back in the city, meanwhile, American foreign-exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) is out to expose the machinations of the mayor and his corrupt regime, which include suppressing a successful cure for dog flu and exterminating the denizens of Trash Island.

If this plotline sounds awfully dark for an ostensible kids’ movie, well, Isle of Dogs isn’t intended as a diversion for the very young—it’s much more of a lively art film to wow both cinema cultists and that smart and sophisticated 11-year-old you once may have been. The pleasures of Anderson’s latest are also what makes films like his Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom such a rewarding treat: the bountiful inventiveness, the unexpected tangents, the playful tinkering with narrative devices, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them visual details. Isle of Dogs delivers a nonstop flow of surprises; the resourcefulness of the entire team of craftspeople is breathtaking. Chief among them are the strikingly handsome production design by Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod, the artfully ragged canine puppets created by Andy Gent, and a magnificent, bold Japanese-inspired score by Shape of Water Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat. As for the voice cast, everyone is game, but it’s particularly droll to hear actors like Norton, Murray and Goldblum as world-weary canines. (And Tilda Swinton’s brief vocal appearance as a “psychic” pug is a hoot.)

Isle of Dogs is so dense and delightful, I can’t wait for my second viewing. And if it doesn’t win this year’s Oscar for animated feature, I’ll suspect a feline conspiracy.

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