Isle of Dogs is an oronym, a phrase sounding like another, in this case "I love dogs," which writer-director Wes Anderson obviously does.
Anderson’s second foray into stop-motion animation applies his signature dry wit to wet noses, a dogkind parable spun from the Far East as much as the Far Side. Although it could be set anywhere, Anderson chose a Japanese mise-en-scene making Isle of Dogs even more visually fantastic than … Mr. Fox. Not entirely a good thing.
Free to create practically any whim, Anderson requires a bit too much narratively of himself and brainstorming buddies Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola. Their plot scrambles keeping pace with inspiration, eventually surrendering to commotion and holding on for dear clarity.
Isle of Dogs sits up and begs for repeat viewings, to scan for more sight gags and sort out Anderson’s allegory overload.
The Japanese motif is established in a gorgeous prologue set "before the age of obedience" when dogs were revered. Then came the evil Kobayashi dynasty, placing cats in highest pet esteem, a dogma carried on by the current six-term mayor of Megasaki City (Kunichi Nomura).
His alarming TV ads about a deadly "snout fever" whipped his constituents into anti-dog hysteria and a grim solution: All dogs will be banished to Trash Island, starting with his family’s pet Spots (Liev Schreiber).
Six months later, Trash Island is littered with dog crates and alpha packs prowling garbage heaps for food. The winners of one scrum are formerly pampered pets led by Chief (Bryan Cranston), a seen-it-all stray unimpressed when an airplane crashes nearby and a human survives. That human is Atari (Koyu Rankin), Mayor Kobayashi’s nephew; he’s searching for Spots, who was actually the boy’s dog.
Chief hangs back while Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and King (Bob Balaban) eagerly wish to help Atari, perhaps earning treats. Their quest winds through a distinctly Andersonian panorama of understated oddness, with the animation medium spinning his signature wryness into full-blown whimsy.
Isle of Dogs is a stop-motion astonishment, its epic scope so intricately detailed, its tiniest movements the results of hours of puppet-posing labor. Anderson occasionally mixes animation mediums: animated shadows, hand-drawn television news. Sometimes he goes split screen, doubling the execution challenges.
Or else Anderson takes off on an animated tangent: a kidney transplant performed in elapsed time, a sushi chef’s hands preparing an eel meal of death. Anderson dotes on such sequences, extending them longer than necessary for the story yet perhaps not long enough for admirers.
Meanwhile, Atari’s search for Spots gets lost in a droll rumpus of coincidentally topical issues: deportation, a youth rebellion against Kobayashi’s autocratic ways, a Putin-style poisoning. Anderson’s two-legged characters are less effective than his dogs, with Greta Gerwig’s pet activist flirting with coming across as a white lightning rod for cultural appropriation complaints.
Isle of Dogs can shake off protest like so many fleas, knowing it can get away with anything viewers won’t like simply because it’s so adorable, in a spiky, precise Wes Anderson sort of way.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.