My first thought leaving Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” was, “Why hasn’t he done this sooner?” Anderson’s uniquely distinctive style — his love for symmetry, defined color palettes, and geometrically arranged shots — seems so obviously suited for animation that it’s a wonder he hasn’t worked with miniatures from the start. Set in a future Japan that is also endearingly retro, “Isle of Dogs” begins with a prologue detailing the overpopulation of Megasaki City with pet dogs. An outbreak of “canine flu” turns the populace against their animals, leading to the rise of a white-suited, cat-loving demagogue named Mayor Kobayashii who exiled all the city’s dogs to Trash Island, a polluted dumping ground. The first victim is Spots, the loyal guard dog of the film’s human protagonist Atari — voiced by Koyu Rankin — a ward of the mayor. As the Island fills with roving packs of newly feral dogs who fight mercilessly over scraps, the plot picks up with the introduction of the Alpha Dog pack. Four dogs fallen from former heights, they are made up of stars (former dog-food spokesdogs and baseball mascots) and voiced by Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, and Ed Norton. A meta-joke, given that these actors are longtime participants in Anderson’s movies. They are joined by the stray, Chief, an outsider voiced by Bryan Cranston in his first collaboration with Anderson. Rescuing Atari, who has escaped from the Mayoral household to find Spots, from the Municipal Dog Catchers, the pack decides to aid the boy, with extreme reluctance from the proud Chief. Back in Megasaki, a foreign exchange student, Tracy — voiced by Greta Gerwig — leads her classmates in uncovering a conspiracy to exterminate the dogs of Trash Island and a cover-up of the discovery of a canine flu cure.
But the plot, for better or for worse, fades away during the journey. While not quite as thematically gripping as his first attempt at stop-motion (and maybe even his best film), “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Anderson’s second movie featuring figurines is a visual triumph. The audience is left to wonder at the incredible work of animation director Mark Waring, art director Curt Enderle, and Anderson. Only Wes Anderson could make an island literally made of trash beautiful: a silver plane crash lands in a field of flapping white papers, polluted rivers flow sinuously through mountains of detritus, and the profiles of the boy and the dogs are silhouetted against the many colored glow of a pile of discarded sake bottles.
Anderson is a confessed Japanophile, and while the film is more like his own private fantasy of Japan, the influence of Kurosawa, Miyazaki, and other Japanese filmmakers is apparent. The soundtrack liberally samples that of “Seven Samurai” and Atari’s silver flight suit is reminiscent of classic Japanese science fiction. Anyway, was anything more suited to Wes Anderson than the meticulous preparation of a Japanese boxed lunch, shot from above?
The dogs, however, are the film’s greatest achievements. Straggly, knocked-kneed, and all skin and bones, they are objects of pity and joy. Their faces resemble those of the actors voicing them, and the way the animators manage to make such small figurines have believable expression is very impressive. They look shell-shocked, somehow: wide eyes at once trusting and traumatized, their open wounds and matted fur reminders of the horrific treatment of their former masters.
The film is filled with the usual Wes Anderson idiosyncrasies: hand-drawn maps, precocious children, labels, lists, and the grand announcement of each part of the story. It opens with the line “All barks have been translated into English.” Notably, the Japanese is not subtitled, a choice drawing some criticism for the apparent sidelining of non-white characters, as Tracy and a TV news translator voiced by Frances McDormand are the only humans who speak English. The effect is that the dogs are foregrounded and made the center of the movie, which in my opinion is a good decision. Even the side characters are entertaining: Tilda Swinton plays a pug named Oracle, whose divine gift is really just the ability to read the news on TV, and Scarlett Johansson’s former show dog Nutmeg engages in a romance with Chief reminiscent of “Lady and the Tramp.”
But in spite of the silliness, or maybe because of it, the serious emotional core that runs throughout the film is effective. While the herding of dogs into camps and attempted genocide necessarily connotes Japan’s experience with war crimes, both as victim and perpetrator, Anderson does little more than uncomfortably acknowledge the parallels. However, the plaintive determination of the dogs to help Atari find Spots even when abandoned by their own masters is touching. Chief’s growing bond with Atari, whom he originally wanted to leave for dead, reminds us there is something redeemable in the harsh world of humans. Dogs were made for us, and we for them. As Johansson’s Nutmeg tells Chief when he asks why he should help Atari: “He’s a twelve year old boy — dogs love those.”