Canines (and kids) to the rescue in ‘Isle of Dogs’
Even a dog person might find him or herself initially withstanding the extra-strength whimsy of “Isle of Dogs,” the new objet d’twee from Wes Anderson. But even a cat person will probably be won over in the end.
Full disclosure: This critic is a dog person, which makes him especially susceptible to a handcrafted stop-motion fable about cast-off canines in a grim day-after-tomorrow Japan. But, like you (I hope), I’m a people person too, and the strength of “Isle of Dogs” — not to mention its eerie and unplanned timeliness — lies in a story that’s at least partially about impassioned young students pushing back against a corrupt adult regime.
That’s right, Anderson’s most political work to date is a funny-animal movie that stars Bryan Cranston as a mangy cur.
“Isle of Dogs” is not without its problems, its maker’s passive-aggressive love affair with Japanese culture chief among them. The movie’s also a minor letdown coming on the heels of Anderson’s two strongest films in years, “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012) and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014). Scripted by the director from a story cobbled together with the help of Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura, the film unfolds in the near-future metropolis of Megasaki City, controlled by the iron-fisted Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Nomura), who hates dogs and has outlawed them to Trash Island off the coast of the mainland.
The story follows the efforts of a motley crew of four-footed outcasts to help the mayor’s 12-year-old ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) locate his beloved Spots (Liev Schreiber) after the boy crash-lands on Trash Island. That the dogs are voiced by the Anderson stock company of Edward Norton (Rex), Bill Murray (Boss), Jeff Goldblum (Duke), and Bob Balaban (King) makes the invitation that much harder to resist.
First among equals is Cranston’s Chief, a street dog whose impulse is to bite any hand that feeds him. Why should he lead his packmates on a hero’s journey across the island’s garbage-strewn wasteland just to reunite some kid with his pampered pet? The early scenes of “Isle of Dogs” are given over to mostly delightful bickering among the leads, each expressing himself with politely earnest fuzzy logic about the best way to proceed.
The new movie is no cute Pixar confabulation and it’s somewhat less family friendly than Anderson’s last stop-motion exercise, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009). Bad things happen to good dogs in this movie, and Trash Island resembles a post-nuclear dystopia in which civilized behavior vies with a basic struggle to survive. A subplot involves a mysterious pack of refugees from an animal-testing lab. As in almost all Wes Anderson movies, the dialogue is cute but life is cruel. That said, the 5-year-old in the row behind me at the screening appeared to roll with it intuitively.
Harder to parse is the movie’s celebration and/or exploitation of Japanese culture. “Isle of Dogs” begs, borrows, and happily wallows in centuries of that country’s visual art and other media, with scenes framed to resemble the woodblock prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige, manga-inspired frippery, a soundtrack rumbling with taiko drumming, call-outs to butoh and Kabuki and sumo wrestling, and big old debts to two Japanese filmmaking legends, director Akira Kurosawa (“Seven Samurai”) and animator Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”).
The movie’s a surfeit for the senses, largely in a good way. The bursting richness of Paul Harrod and Adam Stockhausen’s production design and Curt Enderle’s art design war nicely with the handmade funkiness of Mark Waring’s animation, with its cotton-ball dust clouds and artisanal fleas. The voice cast expands in deadpan bonhomie to include Frances McDormand (as an interpreter), F. Murray Abraham (as a gray-muzzled elder), Tilda Swinton (as a dog mystic), Scarlett Johansson (as a weary show dog), Harvey Keitel (as a tough-guy mutt), Ken Watanabe (as a surgeon), and Yoko Ono (as a scientist named Yoko Ono). The movie could seem so hip it hurts. Instead, it feels generous.
And, yes, appropriative. Anderson is the most obsessive-compulsive of our major directors, and you can tell he’s responding to what he may feel is the wonderfully explosive tidiness of his source material — the controlled frenzy of anime and ukiyo-e and 1960s Japanese pop art. “Isle of Dogs” is a visual bento box assembled by a gifted dilettante, an outsider who loves the art of a place but seems much less interested in its meaning to the people and culture that created it.
The tip-off, and the film’s gravest misstep, is the character Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), an American exchange student (with a giant blonde Afro) who not only exhorts her Japanese schoolmates to fight back against the mayor’s corruption but who leads the charge and serves as the movie’s most active activist character. If you want to mull over why “Isle of Dogs” has been hit in some quarters with charges of culture-slumming, start here.
Yet while the final scenes are heavy on plot, they’re also dramatically satisfying, as kids and canines join forces to right a world wobbling off its axis. The passion and anger of youth are seen as an antidote — maybe the only antidote — to a society the grown-ups have wrecked, and any resemblance to events of the last few months is coincidental and entirely welcome.
In most other respects, “Isle of Dogs” is a fascinating (and furry) place to visit, but visit is all it does. It’s a good boy. But it’s not a great one.
ISLE OF DOGS
Directed by Wes Anderson. Written by Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura. With the voices of Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Greta Gerwig, Bill Murray, Nomura, Yoko Ono. At Boston Common, Kendall Square. 98 minutes. PG-13 (thematic elements, some violent images, stop-motion animal cruelty).