Wes Anderson has done it again. After his delicious adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” in stop-motion animation, he offers an original tale in the same format. Weird but wonderful, “Isle of Dogs” exhibits the same ravishing eye for detail and delightfully deadpan delivery that mark his best live-action films. After some major stumbles—like “The Darjeeling Express”—Anderson is definitely back on track with films like “Fox,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and now “Isle.”
“Dogs” is a homage of sorts to Japanese culture and film, beginning with a percussive musical opening courtesy of Alexandre Desplat’s drum-and-woodblock-dominated score (which will occasionally incorporate bits of Prokofiev’s “Lieutenant Kijé” Suite later on, just also “Moonrise” used Benjamin Britten). It’s set is a future Japan, where the dog-hating mayor of Megasaki, Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura, whose rants, like those of all the Japanese characters, go mostly untranslated, except when they’re rendered by a television announcer voiced by Frances McDormand) takes advantage of an outbreak of dog flu to exile all the province’s canines to Trash Island. The first to go is Spots (Liev Schreiber, who speaks in English like all the other dogs), the security dog—and beloved pet—of Kobayashi’s ward, his twelve-year old orphan nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin). Kobayashi’s plan is opposed by Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito), a scientist working on a cure, but his resistance is summarily dealt with.
But Atari refuses to accept Spots’ removal. He steals a plane and flies to Trash Island to rescue him, but crashes and is himself rescued by one of the bands of scruffy dogs that have formed amid the garbage. This one is supposedly led by the stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), but he’s regularly outvoted by its other members—reasonable Rex (Edward Norton), gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum), erstwhile puppy snacks spokesdog King (Bob Balaban) and onetime baseball mascot Boss (Bill Murray). Those four overrule Chief and decide to take Atari in search of his dog, despite the fact that the evidence points to his having died, unable to get out of his transport cage.
Back on the mainland, Kobayashi sends in robotic dogs, drones and soldiers to retrieve Atari, and, urged on by his henchman Major Domo (Akira Takayama), goes forward with a plan to kill all the dogs on Trash Island. Opposing him is a crusading exchange high school student from Ohio, Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), who uncovers the mayor’s evil scheme and—with the help of Watanabe’s loyal aide Yoko Ono (Yoko Ono)—acquires the scientist’s saving serum.
Meanwhile on the island the group has consults with elder Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) and the supposedly prophetic Oracle (Tilda Swinton), whose foresight actually depends on watching television broadcasts from Megasaki, about how to proceed. Chief undergoes a transformation simply by getting a bath and finds a possible romantic interest in the erstwhile show dog Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), while Spots reappears alive and sound, accompanied by a band of outcast canines that are reputed to be cannibals and take the lead in confronting Kobayashi’s forces.
If all this sounds complicated, it is, but Anderson, along with editors Andrew Weisblum, Ralph Foster and Edward Bursch, ties it all together, helped by some witty title cards and linking narration by Courtney B. Vance. The look of the picture is utterly distinctive, with production designers Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod and puppet designer Andy Gent standing out in an army of colleagues that include animation supervisor Tobias Fouracre and cinematographer Tristan Oliver.
The voice work, too, is delightfully droll, with Cranston, Norton and Gerwig standing out among the ensemble but nary a weak link to be found among them.
“Isle of Dogs” is hardly your average Hollywood animated family movie, and its dry, loopy tone won’t appeal to those looking for one. But if you were enchanted by “Fox” and the Laika Studio pictures, you will surely enjoy this wild visit to Anderson’s “Isle,” even if you’re a dedicated cat lover.