It may be the height of redundancy to call a Wes Anderson film eccentric, but that’s the word that comes to mind as I ponder his newest creation, Isle of Dogs. Like The Fantastic Mr. Fox, it is executed in stop-motion animation and the look of the film is astonishing, from its striking Japanese settings to the richly nuanced expressions of his canine protagonists. I marvel at the skill of the specialists who sculpt these intricate puppets and then bring them to life, one frame at a time.
The story deals with the mean-spirited mayor of a Japanese city who insists that a strain of disease requires all dogs to be exiled to an island that normally serves as a garbage dump. A quartet of former house pets (and one feisty stray) starve and suffer but find strength in each other’s company. They are soon joined by a 12-year-old boy, the mayor’s ward who crash-lands his plane on the island in search of his beloved pooch.
This allegorical narrative is characterized by the deadpan humor and meticulous detail that permeates Anderson’s work. Much of it is quite funny, although its idiosyncrasies are many. The filmmaker’s familiar collaborators include co-writers Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura, composer Alexandre Desplat, production designer Adam Stockhausen and three stop-motion specialists who also worked on The Fantastic Mr. Fox: animation supervisor Mark Waring, cinematographer Tristan Oliver, and production designer Paul Harrod.
The canines are voiced by an all-star cast, many of them Anderson regulars like Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, and Bob Balaban, along with Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Greta Gerwig, and F. Murray Abraham, just for starters. One couldn’t ask for a better ensemble.
Anderson’s admiration for masters of Japanese cinema like Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki is obvious, and the picture pays sincere homage to their country’s artwork and music. But the director’s decision to have his Japanese humans speak in their native tongue, without subtitles, reduces them to one dimension, while the dogs are vividly realized through their English-language dialogue. The results, in some key scenes, are odd and off-putting.
I enjoyed Isle of Dogs for the most part, even though its serious sentiments are sometimes at odds with its quirky humor. There are few filmmakers as distinctive as Wes Anderson, and while this film is uneven it also offers moments of sheer wonder. One has to be willing to overlook his missteps in return for those rewards.