“Isle of Dogs” is the ninth film by Wes Anderson, and his second stop-motion animation, after 2009’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”
While its level of profundity may be debatable, it goes farther and in weirder directions than his previous movies.
It also re-asserts Anderson’s standing as one of America’s current best.
Yet Anderson has his detractors. For many, he’s too cutesy, too artificial, too unwilling to leave his colorful toybox world, as if there were something wrong with that.
But what these gripes really come down to is that his movies are funny, and humans believe that, if something is funny, it’s not to be taken seriously. Anyone who makes others laugh for a living knows otherwise: It’s hard work, and it takes plenty of skill.
The film’s design and framing are not only funny, they are astonishingly beautiful. Like many have said of Kubrick, every frame in the wondrous “Isle of Dogs” is worthy of being a painting, whether it inspires a grin or a gasp.
Its visual range extends from glorious heaps of garbage to the rectangular insides of laboratories.
One scene takes place in a structure built entirely of colored bottles; the way the light plays (or doesn’t play) on the characters is worthy of a viewing itself.
“Isle of Dogs,” with a screenplay by Anderson (based on an idea by Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura) takes place in a futuristic, fictitious Japan. A canine flu overcomes the country, and the tyrannical mayor Kobayashi (Nomura), decides to exile dogs to the aptly-named Trash Island.
First to go is Spots (Liev Schreiber), who belongs to — and looks after — Kobayashi’s young, orphaned nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin).
Months later, the exiled dogs have formed a kind of scavenger civilization. One pack includes four formerly domesticated dogs — Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) — and one stray, Chief (Bryan Cranston).
Atari arrives, crashing a stolen plane, and seeking Spots. The five pooches agree to help, requiring a trip across the strange landscape.
Meanwhile, an American exchange student, Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), who works on her school newspaper, senses a conspiracy that reaches right to the top.
The cast list goes farther, including Scarlett Johansson as former showdog Nutmeg, recent Oscar-winner Frances McDormand as a translator and many actors of Japanese descent; the introduction informs us that the Japanese will be heard as spoken, but that barks will be heard in English.
Like Mexico in the recent “Coco,” “Isle of Dogs” feels respectful and curious toward its Japanese culture, and none of the jokes are built on ridicule or misunderstanding (except, of course, misunderstandings between dogs and humans).
This is also arguably the first time Anderson has focused on the downtrodden, i.e. the “rubbish” of society, as well as on politics. His ultimate denouncements are simple — family is good and corruption is bad — but effectively moving.
In particular, Cranston’s vocal performance is so powerful that when his Chief gets his first taste of a doggie biscuit, his reaction may require viewers to reach for their tissues.
But it’s also hilarious. Unlike so many other comic filmmakers that simply try to emulate Woody Allen, Anderson’s work feels like it springs from a fresh source.
Many laughs are built on a certain offbeat rhythm, such as a pair of “haikus” written by Atari; you listen, you pause, and you giggle. It’s a sheer joy.
“Isle of Dogs” — which, if spoken aloud, sounds like “I love dogs” — is, above all, a work of love, and those with open hearts will find treasure among its glittering trash.
Isle of Dogs
Starring Voices of Bryan Cranston, Liev Schreiber, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton
Written and directed by Wes Anderson
Running time 1 hour, 41 minutes