movie review

Isle of Dogs Should Make You Howl With Joy

Photo: Fox Searchlight

Wes Anderson’s animated feature Isle of Dogs might be the most lyrically disjunctive movie ever made: Nothing fits together and everything harmonizes, magically. The animation is stop-motion, reportedly inspired by such TV perennials as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but filtered through Kabuki and late, formal Akira Kurosawa epics like Kagemusha and Ran. It’s a series of moving paintings, tableaux vivants, a goofy dog comedy, a grim totalitarian allegory. It’s sui generis. It’s the damnedest thing.

The premise? Fluky but ingenious. Isle of Dogs unfolds in the near future in a purportedly democratic but pointedly authoritarian Japan, where the cat-loving Megasaki mayor, Kobayashi, exiles his city’s dogs — most of them sick, with a suspiciously unique flu — to a reeking island garbage dump off the coast.

In that benighted place, the sneezing, filthy creatures roam the trash heaps, fight over maggoty scraps, and commiserate on the sorriness of their state in colloquial American English, delivered with disarming matter-of-factness (one of those disjunctions) by Bryan Cranston (the protagonist, a stray), Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Liev Schreiber, Bob Balaban, Scarlett Johansson, F. Murray Abraham as a canine narrator and Tilda Swinton his diminutive oracle, who understands television. Greta Gerwig supplies the voice of a human American teenager, Courtney B. Vance a presumably non-canine modern narrator. Japanese characters speak in Japanese, sans subtitles.

The story proper kicks off with the crash landing of a mini-plane carrying a boy named Atari (dubbed by the dogs “the Little Pilot”) who happens to be the ward of Mayor Kobayashi and has come to the Isle of Dogs to search for the first dog to be exiled, Spots — not (this is very important) Spot, voiced by Schreiber. Cranston’s street dog Chief wants no part of a kid, being by nature a biter, but his new pet pals (Norton in familiar Scout Leader mode, Murray the fatalistic hipster, Goldblum the stammering cogitator) drag him along on the odyssey. An intertitle calls this section, The Search for Spots. (Leonard Nimoy, RIP.)

Several times in Isle of Dogs, Alexandre Desplat’s lovely, strumming score yields to a Japanese-inflected treatment of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije Suite, which suggests Kobayashi (who poisons his political foes with the help of a tall, Karloffian goon known as Major Domo) might be a stand-in for Putin and the dogs for political dissidents shipped to the gulag. Or perhaps they’re just dogs — it works either way.

What’s foremost — this being un film de Wes — is le mise-en-scène. Most of the panels have Anderson’s familiar brand of off-center symmetry, which can seem too finicky by half in live-action but is breathtakingly right with Kabuki-ish characters and the occasional split, shoji-proportioned screen. Watching overhead shots of a chef slicing and plating assorted sea creatures, it hit me: I think he’s turning Japanese, I think he’s turning Japanese, I really think so! Perfection, too, is stop-motion’s artificiality. You don’t want fluidity, seamlessness. You want to see behavior broken down into its essential components. Even amid the canines’ anthropomorphic musings, one or more may stop and listen or stretch (or sneeze) in a way that registers as Essence of Dog. Never mind the Oscars. Show the movie at the annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show and any sane judge would want to shower the characters with ribbons.

Each frame is a happy surprise with its unique universe of color, from the palette of yellows in the classroom where the tall, stick-legged American exchange student (voiced by Gerwig) with the blonde Afro makes the rousing case for rescuing young Atari (big girls with crushes on little boys plainly has resonance for young Wes) to the sea of silver grass that gives this sunless world an eerie luster. (The production design is by Paul Harrod and Adam Stockhausen, the art direction by Curt Enderle. Tristan Oliver, of Loving Vincent, Chicken Run, and Anderson’s own The Fantastic Mr. Fox is the cinematographer who palpably knows the ins, outs, and what-have-yous of stop-motion.) When you’re not exhaling in admiration, you’re laughing at the wit that went into designing things like the government’s mechanical dogs, which spring a fanlike appurtenance from their heads before attacking — so Japanese lion, so Jurassic Park.

Anderson shaped the story with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura, but wrote the screenplay himself. It’s not on the breathtaking level of the visuals — what could be? — but it’s superb in its own right, its one-liners not just clever (“Stop licking your wounds!”) but redolent of loneliness and an exile’s abiding incomprehension. Cranston’s Chief is a great character, a stray who tells the lovely, prize-winning bitch, Nutmeg (voiced by Johansson), “We’re all astray.”

As an Anderson non-worshipper, I’m tempted to say he should stick to animation, where he’s investing puppets with multiple dimensions instead of reducing multidimensional actors to puppets. But that would be, in this context, unkind. It would also ignore Anderson’s potential — which I think is in there, somewhere — for mining the dramatic tension between his artificial frames and the messy humans they contain or, perhaps, imprison. To be a sentient being stuck in a Wes Anderson frame would be daunting. Perhaps that’s how he feels. If out of that state come gifts like Isle of Dogs, then the only proper response is to howl with joy.

Isle of Dogs was nominated for two Oscars in 2019, including Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score.

Isle of Dogs Should Make You Howl With Joy