With the dark and enchanting animated parable “Isle of Dogs,” Wes Anderson raises his little personal world to new, finely detailed heights. Not just in terms of his idiosyncratic approach to soundtracks, or those gorgeous sets that resemble exquisite, meticulous dioramas. His latest film lifts his favorite tone of whimsical kids’ adventure to levels of maturity and skepticism that enrich his unmistakable vision, taking us to a world both strange and strangely familiar.
This is a film about dogs. Except it’s really about underdogs. It’s about the kinds of kingdoms that are created in a child’s imagination — apart from sections that seem to have fallen out of the headlines or books about unpleasant history. It is about commitment and friendship and courage, but with major moments of violence and filth and puke and profanity.
Anderson hardly ever disappoints. Here he delights us, makes demands of us like never before, and dares us to keep up with his marathon pace.
As usual in his visually ornate films, everything appears like a surprising new page in a pop-up picture book. The film is a stop-motion project like Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” full of marionette-like images and effects that are all the more impressive because of their high degree of difficulty. He transports us to a late 21st century Japan packed with narrative and visual flourishes that Anderson aficionados adore: odd codes of conduct, admirable or menacing adults, ornate steampunk machines and dry, self-deprecating, sarcastic wit. Plus the novel addition of dogs, many, many well-spoken dogs.
On the stern orders of Megasaki City’s Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura), countless dogs suffering a mysterious “snout fever” are banished to nearby Trash Island. Strays, former house pets, watchdogs, show dogs and guard dogs have been sent there ostensibly for concerns about public health. The truth of that order becomes a plot thread cleverly explored.
The various breeds coexist and, on rare occasions, band together into packs. Rather than the usual fastidious Anderson play sets, the dump is a messy junkyard assembled with a perverse aesthetic precision, the ideal backgrounds for the dogs’ messed-up lives.
While most of the humans hold forth in subtitled Japanese, the mutts’ dialogue is voiced in English by the likes of Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel and Edward Norton. What most of the dogs want is a way out, back to the owners who used to be kind to them. But complete freedom to carelessly roam is pretty good, too. Each pooch has an independent personality and a one-of-a-kind way of expressing itself. They come off like close cousins of Anderson, a filmmaker who knows his own way, does exactly what he wants and follows nobody’s commands.
Then 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin), the mayor’s adopted nephew, flies onto the island with a jalopy airplane to rescue his exiled pet. His arrival makes a band of hounds decide if they’re willing to stop roaming unleashed, obey the boy, help him and even protect him.
Together they wander into epic fantasy adventure as they explore the ghastly island, where everything ugly from refuse to abandoned fairgrounds and factories was man-made. Along the way, they encounter dangerous outbursts of dog-on-dog violence. It isn’t brutal. The big brawls occur inside cartoon-style billows of smoke. But it still has bite. Like last year’s “War for the Planet of the Apes,” there’s a tone of gravity among the adorable animals (though thankfully far less).
Sideline stories unwind back in Megasaki City, where the bad guys are fur-stroking cat lovers inspired by James Bond villains. The medical-industrial-political complex is up to no good, drawing the attention of young exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), a smart girl with great spy instincts. Spoiler alert: Adult humans are the real beasts here. Soon Tracy and her poster-wielding classmates expose official corruption and call for political change.
Discussions on “Isle of Dogs” began four years ago, and its emotional subtext seems to reflect the confinement of Japanese Americans during World War II. As the narrator tells us at the opening, “Fear has been mongered.” Still, it’s a remarkable coincidence that this film would come out at the moment that American student activism has reached levels not seen since the 1960s.
Like Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” this makes socially important points without a political polemical voice (OK, maybe “Budapest” was just a little firm about fascism). While the story notes that kids can be almost as reckless as officially responsible adults, it reaches an utterly charming and optimistic ending that couldn’t have come about in any other way. While it’s a bit too sharp-fanged to suit very young audiences, Anderson has crafted a truly universal film that appeals across generations. He’s done it again.