By Jim Slotek
When you witness Wes Anderson letting his quirk flag fly in stop-motion animated films like Fantastic Mr. Fox and the current, crazily imaginative faux Japanese fable Isle of Dogs, one wonders why he bothers with actual humans.
Technically a sci-fi tale, Isle of Dogs takes place 20 years in the future, in and near the fictional city of Megasaki, and has toxic dumpster wasteland scenes that evoke WALL-E. But it also throws in homages to Kurosawa era samurai films, and even slyly winks at the tropes of Toho monster movies by making an incongruous American character key to the plot.
And of course, it is a big, slobbery kiss from dogs to humans, forged against a plot that amounts to intended canine-genocide. Like a cute kitten that melts the Twitter-verse, Isle of Dogs (say it slowly if you haven’t already noticed the wordplay in the title), has more heart than any previous Anderson movie by dint of its adorable four-legged protagonists.
A prologue-fable - set against taiko drumming that hauntingly complements Alexandre Desplat’s score throughout – tells of a centuries-old blood feud between the Kobayashi clan and the army of dogs. It then drops us into the not-so-distant future where a glowering, villainous Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by co-writer Kunichi Nomura) is campaigning on a platform of ridding Megasaki of all dogs because of an outbreak of “snout fever” that’s potentially dangerous to humans.
That he is able to do this with extreme prejudice, frightening technology, and with the angry approval of the populace seems counter-intuitive to dog-loving Western eyes and ears. But it may be a metaphor for the power of propaganda.
To prove he is “all in,” Mayor Kobayashi offers up Spots (Liev Schreiber) as “Dog Zero” to be quarantined on a toxic waste dump called Trash Island. Spots just happens to be the companion animal of his ward Atari (Koyu Rankin), who is determined to rescue him.
It should be noted that the dogs in the movie all speak English. Some Japanese is selectively translated, but much of it is not.
The post-apocalyptic island garbage dump is soon home to herds of newly-feral, hungry dogs, whose ranks include Boss (Bill Murray), Rex (Edward Norton), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and King (Bob Balaban), plus the stand-offish, never-tamed Chief (Bryan Cranston).
With varying degrees of commitment (least of all from surly Chief), this band of mutts joins Atari on his quest when he crash-lands a single-flyer plane on Trash Island in pursuit of Spots, battling toxic waste and killer robot dogs en route to the truth.
Meanwhile, in Megasaki, a scientist (Akira Ito) and his team work against time to find a cure for snout fever, while a freckle-faced, Orphan Annie-haired American exchange student named Tracy (Greta Gerwig) digs into a political conspiracy behind the disease.
There’s an archly funny earnestness to it all, and a meticulousness to the depictions of the smallest things – like preparing sushi. There are romantic subplots, flashbacks, back-stories, all served up against a backdrop that is lovingly rendered in every frame.
And there is darkness, the cloud that hangs over the movie with the looming euthanization of the city’s entire dog population, a nod to the reality of real-life strays. That part may be tough for the youngest kids to absorb.
But for every other age, Isle of Dogs is a pure, joyful tail-wag.
Isle of Dogs. Directed by Wes Anderson. Written by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman. Opens wide, Friday, March 23.