Stop motion dog cinema has never been as charming or playful as it is in Wes Anderson’s shaggy, misfit adventure, “Isle of Dogs.” Packing Anderson’s quirky panache without throwing any needless, esoteric bones, this furry flick can be appreciated by any breed of audience without discrimination.
This movie serves as an ode to man’s best friend and testament to the limitless backyard of man’s imagination. Rarely do we encounter something in cinema that feels wholly unique, like it was derived by a boy who grew up without ever watching a single movie and had no ways to quell his boredom except by imagining fanciful adventures in far off worlds with his nearby, canine companion.
Set in a futuristic Japan where a swelling dog population has reached crisis level, “Isle of Dogs” depicts the humorous aftermath of a government decision to deport the country’s canines to a nearby garbage island. We follow a pack of five dogs heralded by Chief (Bryan Cranston), a dirty stray whose leadership skills compensate for his aggressive behavior and anti-social tendencies. Chief’s compadres Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) are more welcoming pooches and still love their leader none-the-less. But it’s Chief’s pessimistic, water-bowl-half-empty attitude that puts him at odds with Atari (Koyu Rankin), a 12-year-old who valiantly voyages to the isle to rescue his, well, rescue dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber).
The movie darts back and forth between Chief, Atari and the pack’s efforts to find Spots on the Isle, and the burgeoning conspiracy of Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) as he attempts to thwart a scientist with a dog flu cure and a western foreign exchange student determined to expose Kobayashi’s ills to the eastern world. The sequences back on Japan are necessary but are unsatisfying, the magic dwindling anytime our doggy heroes are off-screen. That’s because the dog sequences pet our human sensibilities in a cathartic and emotional manner. The curious charm we get from these dashing dogs never subsides, their squabbles and distinct personalities as resilient and unsilenceable as a squeaky chew toy.
It’d be foolish to think that “Isle of Dog’s” charms are spawned solely from its splendid, stop motion animation, or because of the famous names hanging off the dogs’ Hollywood collars. The magic of this movie can be traced to how each of the dogs and humans have complex relationships independent of and with one another. If “Isle of Dogs” were “The Breakfast Club,” Chief would be the Judd Nelson to Duke’s Emilio Estevez. If the movie were “Lord of the Rings, the elder dog Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) would be the Gandalf to Chief’s Aragon, King’s Legolas, and Duke’s Gimli. It’s not so much that they talk that strokes our fancy in “Isle of Dogs,” but the fact that they actually converse.
Even if it wasn’t entertaining, “Isle of Dogs” would still satisfy on a purely aesthetic level. The movie hearkens the bright colors and campy close-ups of Anderson’s live-action flicks. “Isle of Dog’s” is a filmmaking feat so seamless that we often forget what we’re watching isn’t from our reality.
But Anderson’s biggest triumph with “Isle of Dogs” is that he’s finally made a movie that is by no means esoteric. This movie is more than just two hours of hipster porn, tastier than any of the gluten-free plot ingredients you’d commonly find in the Anderson aisle of a Trader Joes in a gentrified part of Brooklyn. Isle of Dogs” speaks not just to millennials or movie lovers but to all of man, a tightly-conceived story with still enough leash room to wag and roam through our heads and our hearts.