In the futuristic backdrop of a Japan twenty years from now, a dog flu has swept through the sovereign island nation, and like the avian, equine, and swine strains of influenza before it, the virus has spread to the human population. Mayor Kobayashi (voice of Kunichi Nomura) has decreed that all canines showing the symptoms of the disease, which are many and grotesque, must be abandoned to an island off the coast of the country. Writer/director Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs gives these abandoned pets an adventure story in his second exhibition of stop-motion animation, but don't let the animation style fool you.
This is not a movie for the youngest in the audience. It has been rated PG-13, and everything here - from the pacing (which is as deliberate and, depending on the viewer, potentially off-putting to certain tastes as the filmmaker's works usually are) to the subject matter (which is highly political and, at one point, details an elaborate assassination plot) - suggests that it could easily have gone one higher with an even greater sacrifice of inhibition. This is not to say, of course, that the film isn't an entertainment. It is, featuring perhaps the finest stop-motion work does in this field since its inception.
One only needs to look at the surroundings of this world to understand the confidence in that statement. Every detail is stunning, and even if a lot of it is dichromatic in its reliance on oranges and browns, the aesthetic affords every scene the kind of scope that inspires awe. The film is often very funny, also, with its pack of dog heroes - leader Rex (voice of Edward Norton), his fellows Boss (voice of Bill Murray), Duke (voice of Jeff Goldblum), and King (voice of Bob Balaban), and perpetual loner Chief (voice of Bryan Cranston) - offering the usual deadpan observations and existential quandaries that populate Anderson's films.
The central plot is, to a greater and stranger degree than in the director's usual efforts, of genuine and sometimes urgent importance. These canines cross paths with Atari (voice of Koyu Rankin), a 12-year-old boy pilot who crash lands (His injuries are pretty grim and only get worse as the movie plays) on the island while looking for his lost dog, Spots (voice of Liev Schreiber, great as a dog who, when the others find him, has moved on to a life he cannot simply leave). The kicker is that Atari is Kobayashi's distant nephew. The mayor, meanwhile, plans to euthanize all the dogs and must be convinced of the existence of a cure for the influenza strain.
The major subplot regards the attempts by some to convince Kobayashi, by others to remove him from power, and by Kobayashi himself to eliminate a political enemy. That sentence has not provided spoilers of any significant kind, because Anderson has a lot on his mind in these segments. The story is very political (Indeed, it has led to some controversy surrounding the presence of an Asian translator voiced by Frances McDormand and a foreign exchange student, voiced by Greta Gerwig, who is trying, with an ultimate futility, to incite change in this culture which is alien to her), and even with the lighter tone of the main through line, it is impossible to escape the bleak reality of these characters' existence.
Still, the storybook qualities of the plot devised by Anderson lend themselves more to fantasy than to reality. The film is divided into parts (and, strangely, also chapters, making it occasionally annoying to attempt to figure out where we are in the story) and narrated by a no-nonsense Courtney B. Vance with the formality of a newscaster. The engine of the plot is a story based in the concept of family, which, for these (or any) dogs, is of paramount importance. It is, in other words, very much a Wes Anderson picture. Isle of Dogs provides more than enough to that end, and the result is as vibrant as it is sorrowful.
Featuring the voices of Bryan Cranston (Chief), Koyu Rankin (Atari), Edward Norton (Rex), Bob Balaban (King), Bill Murray (Boss), Jeff Goldblum (Duke), Kunichi Nomura (Mayor Kobayashi), Akira Takayama (Major-Domo), Greta Gerwig (Tracy Walker), Frances McDormand (Nelson), Akira Ito (Watanabe), Scarlett Johansson (Nutmeg), Liev Schreiber (Spots), Courtney B. Vance (Narrator), Harvey Keitel (Gondo), F. Murray Abraham (Jupiter), Yoko Ono (Yoko-ono), and Tilda Swinton (Oracle).
Directed and written by Wes Anderson.
Rated PG-13 (thematic elements, violent images).
Released in select cities on March 23, 2018.