As much as any filmmaker who has ever lived, Wes Anderson has a recognizable style. He makes movies that are marked by the same kinds of wry narratives, and he continually turns to the same stars – of which Bill Murray, Edward Norton and Scarlett Johansson are just three – to explore his droll storylines.
Those three actors – plus Anderson newcomers Bryan Cranston and Greta Gerwig – take part in “Isle of Dogs,” which is Anderson’s second animated feature – 2009’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” being his first.
Of course, what marks an Anderson film most is its tone, which many critics have described as whimsical – which though accurate doesn’t capture the fact that, at heart, most Anderson films at least touch on serious subjects.
2001’s “The Royal Tenenbaums,” for example, is a study in family dysfunction. 2012’s “Moonrise Kingdom” tells a tale of childhood innocence confronting, and rejecting, ordinary adult despair. All of Anderson’s films, actually, deal somehow with the angst of those who are confounded by the often overwhelming demands of life – such as what faces Bill Murray’s character in 2004’s “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.”
Yet only occasionally does Anderson’s tone delve too far into the darkness. His tendency toward light humor – Murray’s ironic line readings being a prime example – is ever-present. And it’s perfectly rendered in “Isle of Dogs,” even if this film, too, has its serious sides.
The setting is Japan, sometime in the near future. A plague of so-called Dog Flu has spread through the country’s canine population, and Kobayashi – the mayor of Megasaki City who has his own ulterior motives – decrees that all dogs must be banished to Trash Island. The first to go: Spots, the beloved companion of Kobayashi’s adopted son Atari.
Six months later, the intrepid Atari (voiced by Japanese actor Koyu Rankin), never one to leave a friend behind, hijacks a flying contraption and sets off in pursuit. Mechanical problems ensue, causing Atari to crash and leaving him at the mercy of Trash Island’s new residents – some of whom are said to be cannibalistic. The five he initially meets are friendly enough, though they make a diverse group, from the battle-prone Chief (voiced by Cranston) to the erstwhile leader Rex (voiced by Norton), whose democratic attitudes are played for comedy every time a group decision is called for.
Meanwhile, back in Megasaki City, while Kobyashi is fending off the efforts of a scientist who has come up with a dog-flu cure, a foreign-exchange student from America named Tracy (voiced by Gerwig) suspects that a conspiracy has been hatched and foments a protest movement – which appears doomed since the city’s populace has been, she says, brainwashed.
Matters come to a head as Atari and his pals search for Spots, as Kobayashi plots to have all the Trash Island dogs euthanized, as Tracy faces deportation – and as the cannibal dogs make an appearance. Listen for the voice of Harvey Keitel.
It’s all told in impeccable stop-action animation, with fluffy cotton effects passing for battle scene dust-ups, and the vocal asides aligning perfectly with the expressions drawn on the various characters’ faces.
In the end, it’s debatable which part of “Isle of Dogs” is the more impressive: its poignant feel for the bond between humans and pets or the imagination it took for Anderson and his co-screenwriters to come up with this moving testament both to canines and to the country that gave us Akira Kurosawa.