If you can’t always understand what Isle of Dogs is trying to say, or even completely comprehend what it’s about, you can sit back and admire the artistry and imagination behind it all.
The latest celebration of eccentricity from director Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom) is a hilarious and heartfelt animated tribute to the lasting bonds between humans and canines.
That it’s also a timely and sharply observed political satire involving teenagers protesting the actions of an authoritarian regime and special interests — or a salute to classic Japanese cinema — is simply a bonus.
The story begins in a fictional Japanese city ruled in the near future by a cat-loving dynasty, and in particular a corrupt mayor (voiced by Konichi Nomura) who makes a complete eradication of dogs a central component of his reelection bid.
The pooches are subsequently banished to nearby Trash Island, a giant landfill where they are left to die from pervasive illness and starvation. However, the mayor’s 12-year-old nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), misses his four-legged bodyguard (Liev Schreiber), so he voyages to the island to find him, then crashes his small plane in the process.
That leaves Atari stranded alongside a ragtag group of anthropomorphic mongrels (Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, and Bob Balaban) who bicker over the best ways to survive and wax nostalgic about better times. Meanwhile, the mayor’s greedy plan for pet repopulation is uncovered by a foreign-exchange student (Greta Gerwig) on the school newspaper, setting off an animal-rights controversy.
Anderson is in complete command of dramatic tone and visual texture here, incorporating a dazzling if somewhat rudimentary mix of stop-motion and hand-drawn animation with puppetry. He’s assisted by a wonderfully idiosyncratic score by Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water).
Of course, the filmmaker seems to have access to endless top-notch talent to fill his ensembles, and the voice cast here includes his regular collaborators such as Murray and Norton, along with some more eclectic choices including Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, and even Yoko Ono.
Anderson’s screenplay features many of his usual characteristics — deadpan, whimsical, playfully subversive, relentlessly quirky — while finding a fresh way to convey familiar man’s-best-friend themes of companionship and loyalty.
Isle of Dogs relishes and even heightens the absurdity in its scenarios through an amusing mix of one-liners and sight gags. The result works on multiple levels without ever chasing its tail.