Marrying eye-popping stop-motion animation with themes of political hysteria and scapegoating and a dash of Akira Kurosawa, Wes Anderson has created a film that, for all its narrative clutter, will thrill his hard-core fans and even please a few casual admirers. It's called Isle of Dogs, but it might as well be "Isle of Anderson," as the unique writer-director is all alone stylistically.
It's the year 2038, and the canine population of dystopian Japan is ravaged by dog flu and snout fever. To protect humans, Kobayashi, the dictatorial mayor of Megasaki, banishes all dogs to Trash Island. He doesn't care that a cure is nigh and even decrees that the first evicted hound will be Spots, the beloved pet of his nephew, Atari.
But Atari – along with a small group of scientists and students – sees through Kobayashi's propaganda and is determined to find his dog, expose the mayor's lies, cure the canines and restore inter-species harmony. On his quest, he's joined by a gang of misfit mutts, notably Chief, a former stray who at first eschews affection but eventually develops a reluctant respect for Atari's fight against the doggie version of ethnic cleansing.
Anderson visited stop-motion animation nine years ago with Fantastic Mr. Fox. Based on the book by Roald Dahl, that film had more charm, wit and coherency than Isle of Dogs. Though this new film's animation is breathtakingly detailed and a joy to behold, its screenplay is muddled, overwritten and not impactful enough, emotionally or comedically. Arresting and imaginative, Dogs comes across as a bit cold until the final 30 minutes when Chief (Bryan Cranston) is given a great story to chew on and emerges as the only character with powerful, dramatic appeal – though Oracle (Tilda Swinton) will melt the hearts of pug-lovers.
The film is filled with the structural devices (prologue, chapter headings and meta-theatrical flashbacks) and dialogue delivery (deadpan, monotone and speed-reading) that Anderson aficionados expect. And as for actors, we get Anderson's usual suspects (Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham and Frances McDormand) plus some surprises (Greta Gerwig, Scarlett Johansson, Liev Schreiber and an interesting array of Japanese actors, including Yoko Ono), though Anderson throws them all too few narrative bones. Add the director's trademark hipster irreverence and a pinch of classic Japanese filmmaking – with its cold exterior belying a deep warmth – and you have one of the year's oddest cinematic smorgasbords.
Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer embraced minimalism. He boiled his stories down to their essential truths by eliminating superfluous writing and production design. Anderson is the antithesis of Dreyer, as the American director's sumptuous films trend toward structural and visual gluttony. For some, they are feasts for the eyes and soul. To others, they are tedious and annoying, and speak to the fact that Anderson might have been a better production designer than director. But there's no denying he's perfectly suited to stop-motion, which allows him to play (literally) with myriad characters and sets.
Isle of Dogs is his own personal toy chest. And though the pieces are a bit too plastic, it's fun to watch him play.