You don’t have to consider yourself a “dog person” to get a kick out of the new Wes Anderson comedy Isle of Dogs. But if you do happen to share your space with a creature of the canine persuasion, you’ll find even more to love in this wry social satire in which political chicanery is thwarted by one plucky boy, abetted by a pack of exiled, abandoned hounds.
Anderson wrote the clever script from a story he concocted with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura. Told in meticulously crafted, yet exuberant stop-motion animation, the story is set in a kind of alternative Japan, “20 years in the future,” when an epidemic of Dog Flu has swept across the metropolis of Megasaki City. To combat further outbreak, all dogs in the city are rounded up and quarantined to Trash Island, the city’s offshore garbage dump—left to fend for themselves amid mountains of trash, rats and rain.
To promote this drastic solution, corrupt Mayor Kobayashi launches the program by exiling Spots, the loyal guard dog who belongs to the mayor’s 12-year-old ward, Atari (voice of Koyu Rankin). But the mayor underestimates the bond between a boy and his dog. Atari steals a miniature Junior Turboprop and flies alone to Trash Island, determined to find his pet.
There, he’s befriended by a pack of domesticated canines. Despite their formidable names—King, Rex, Duke, Boss—they’re not adapting well to their lives of newfound freedom, and miss their masters. Stalwarts from Anderson’s usual stock company of players voice the dogs—Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, and Bob Balaban—although it might take a couple of viewings to match up the voices with the correct doggy personalities.
Except for alpha dog, Chief (voice of Bryan Cranston); he’d be the leader of the pack, if he wasn’t such a loner, and (gasp!) a stray. He disdains the democratic way the others put everything up for a vote when action is called for. Still, unaccustomed to creature comforts himself, he keeps an eye out for them, always exhorting them to buck up, and not give in to despair. “You’re acting like a bunch of household pets!” he exclaims, if he feels like their survival instincts are weakening.
Despite Chief’s misgivings, the dogs team up to help Atari find his missing pet. (Nerd insider joke: one chapter of the story is titled “The Search for Spots.”) Meanwhile, back on the mainland, Mayor Kobayashi carries out his draconian anti-dog fear-mongering, despite scientific evidence, public disapproval, and student protests, closely guarding his secret financial connection to a corporate entity out to replace live pets with robot dogs.
The way Anderson puts the movie together is as entertaining as the story. A prologue of ornate screen paintings reveal how dogs used to be “kings” until the cat-loving Kobayashi Dynasty took over a few centuries ago. (Well, at least cats themselves are not depicted as villainous!) Gorgeous snippets of stylized Japanese Noh theater inform the action, and robotic gadgetry—from ingenious to ridiculously malfunctioning—pops up all over the place.
The actors (including Scarlett Johansson, as a strawberry-blonde “showdog” named Nutmeg, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, and Yoko Ono, among many others) all deliver lines in their native accents and languages, so Anderson gets comic mileage out of the fact that the dogs who speak in American English can’t understand the Japanese characters, like Atari. (Yet they communicate the way humans and dogs have for centuries, via “fetch” games and doggie treats.)
Anderson also assembles an outstanding musical score. Along with Alexandre Desplat’s original compositions, the soundtrack pulses with Taiko drumming, musical phrases borrowed directly from Kurosawa samurai movies, an unexpected dollop of Prokofiev, and the laid-back, yet weirdly edgy pop song, “I Won’t Hurt You,” from ’60s psychedelic rockers The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band.
Overall, this is sly, smart social commentary, as much fun as a barrel of puppies.
ISLE OF DOGS
***1/2 (out of four)
With the voices of Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, and Scarlett Johansson. Written and directed by Wes Anderson. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated PG-13. 101 minutes.