Who are we and who do we want to be? These are the big questions left on our minds after watching Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” — and their loftiness is somewhat surprising given the film is a stop-motion animation about talking Japanese dogs.
Anderson is often minimized as an esoteric stylist, but he’s one of the only American directors whose films address the most relevant matters. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” showed us the importance of keeping something wild in our hearts and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” addressed the creeping fascist threat in our lives.
Because “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is animated in the same manner, it is easily compared to “Isle of Dogs,” though each Anderson picture is its own thing. As the Narrator (voiced by Courtney B. Vance, in one of a dozen brilliant vocal performances) intones, Anderson’s newest film takes place in the near-ish future on “the Japanese Archipelago.”
More specifically, the setting is Megasaki, a metropolis afflicted with dog flu and xenophobia. Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), a scion of a centuries-old pro-feline, anti-canine dynasty, is covered with yakuza-style cat tats and rules the city with Kane-like bombast. This autocrat makes citizens submit their dogs’ papers and then icily rounds them into internment camps called “Dog Displacement Centers” before deportation to Trash Island. Not only does Kobayashi banish dogs, he replaces them with scary machines that resemble advanced versions of Boston Dynamics’ robot pooch.
The parallels between the storyline and current events in the United States are clear, and the aspirational way to address the problem is clear too. Kobayashi’s young ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin), devastated that Spots, his security dog, is lost and presumed dead, flies a small plane and crash lands on the scrappy Isle of Dogs.
The modern-day Little Prince meets our Akira Kurosawan stray dog protagonists there and pitches them on a rescue mission.
Chief (Bryan Cranston) is a leader who will not be brought to heel: “I do not sit.” His pack includes the more amenable Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and, most hilariously, Duke (Jeff Goldblum), a gossipy mutt, always asking the group if they’ve heard any rumors. How does he get his information? “Dogs talk; I listen.” This wild bunch fights with other canines over garbage and trash, any piece of refuse.
Chief rebuffs Atari until he speaks with Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), a retired show dog seeking an identity beyond being a retired show dog.
She convinces him that there is no purer love than that of a 12-year-old boy and a mongrel, so the adventure commences. Traversing the Isle, the pack runs into all sorts of marvelous pups, like Gondo (Harvey Keitel), the disturbed leader of a pack of aboriginal dogs, Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham), a wise old timer with access to bootleg hooch, and Oracle (Tilda Swinton), whose prophetic power is divined from her understanding television.
Happily for the banished dogs, American exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) leads the resistance in Megasaki — she foments student protests and plots ways to reach Trash Island with Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono’s dog flu vaccine.
Predictably for an Anderson film, every frame is gorgeous and layered.
The sets are color-coded beauties, the dogs all have expressive eyes and fluttering hair, and the two-dimensional animations in the film are vivid references to the prints of Hokusai and other Japanese master artists.