If you like dogs and/or Wes Anderson, this might be the movie for you.
Anderson is a filmmaker who stocks his work with references to his broad range of interests. His last film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” was a funny story about a hotel, its workers, a regular guest and creeping fascism between the two world wars. It had stylized action and amusing situations, but its characters felt a bit two-dimensional, at least to me.
“Isle of Dogs” reflects Anderson’s enthusiasm for dogs and Japanese culture — from sushi to woodblock prints to to haiku to the movies of Akira Kurosawa — and extremely detailed stop-motion sets. The broad themes are loyalty, human-despoiled landscapes, totalitarianism and social activism.
Here’s the setup: Megasaki, a fictional city in Japan’s near future, has a centuries-old tradition of tension between dog lovers and cat fanciers. Its current ruler, Kobayashi, a cat guy, deports all the city’s dogs to Trash Island, ostensibly to protect the human population from dog flu and snout fever.
And so the dogs, like the city’s garbage, are conducted by carriers on zip lines to a scene of environmental degradation, rather as ethnic groups were banished in modern history by xenophobic autocrats. (Anderson has said he and his crew were thinking about Auschwitz during this creation.)
The scenes on the island, the Isle of Dogs of the title, are the best part of the movie. There are interactions between four good dogs, loyal and true to their owners, and the more cynical Chief, a stray who has had to fight to survive. (BTW, Anderson’s childhood pet was a black lab named Chief.) The renderings of the dogs and their sorrow-inducing environment are resonant and beautiful.
Onto the island comes Atari, a 12-year-old orphan who has hijacked a plane and flown to Trash Island to find his own dog, Spots. Atari’s loyalty resembles that of the dogs themselves, and they come to respect each other and work together.
Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, leader Kobayashi faces political resistance from a scientist, Watanabe, who promises to develop a serum that will eradicate dog diseases. Watanabe runs for mayor and meets a bad end. (Bigotry beats science.)
Watanabe’s cudgel is taken up by Tracy, a 17-year-old student activist from Cincinnati. This character has been criticized for introducing a white savior into a Japanese story. A few critics also have asserted that only Japanese people should tell stories about Japan. To be fair, Anderson involved Japanese artists, actors and story vetters to assure authenticity.
I can only speculate: Maybe Tracy may was added late to a plot that did not have even one major female character, or maybe Anderson telepathically anticipated that US students would organize March for Our Lives demonstrations on the day after the “Isle of Dogs” opening. Personally, I was more dismayed by the optics of stray dog Chief’s arc during the course of the plot.
The movie reflects its maker’s wide-ranging interests in humorous diversions that start as the film opens and continue through the final credits. To the extent there is actual violence, it is rendered in an amusing recurring image. Several scenes are clear homages to the Kurosawa oeuvre.
The film’s Japanese characters speak Japanese, which is translated when necessary, and as the opening advises, “All barks are rendered in English,” which is clever and fun. There is even an assistant-scientist Yoko-Ono voiced by you-know-whom.
In short, it’s not a traditional straight-line plot, but the meanderings are enjoyable and likely expected by Wes Anderson’s many fans.
Although stop-action films typically are children’s fare, the movie involves cruelty to dogs and dog despair, themes that will distress the very young. That PG-13 rating is there for a reason.
“Isle of Dogs” has many fine actors doing the voice-overs: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray, Liev Schreiber, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Greta Gerwig, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, Ken Watanabe and Courtney B. Vance, among others. Wouldn’t it be a treat to see all these in an actual ensemble drama?