Wes Anderson’s Talking-Canine Picture Isle of Dogs Feels As Real As Any of His Movies

The filmmaker may be most at home with stop-motion puppets, but his latest shows he’s not afraid to get political.

Four dogs and a boy line up in a still from the film.
Isle of Dogs. Fox Searchlight Pictures

There’s an effect in stop-motion animation known as “boiling,” wherein parts of the figure being filmed that are subject to tiny movements between frames—especially strands of hair or fur—appear in the final product to be in constant movement, as if charged with static electricity. In modern animation, this effect is usually considered a fault, an interruption of the image’s would-be realistic smoothness. But in his second stop-motion feature, Isle of Dogs—as in his first, the brilliant Roald Dahl adaptation Fantastic Mr. FoxWes Anderson embraces “boiling” as an aesthetic and even, somehow, thematic first principle. That little crackle of imperfection, that slight glitch of wonkiness, gives Anderson’s animated work—including an action sequence filmed almost entirely with puppets in his latest live-action film, The Grand Budapest Hotel—a vibrancy and immediacy he doesn’t always achieve with flesh-and-blood actors.

To say that this famously detail-oriented director is at his best when working as a literal miniaturist, manipulating tiny puppets in impeccably built-to-scale worlds, is not to put down his nonanimated movies, many of which I love. But granting himself the freedom to create an entire visual world from scratch seems to give Anderson access to something that’s often absent from his obsessively rendered human tableaux. With the possible exception of Rushmore, it’s the Anderson films starring small assemblages of cloth, fur, and wire that have struck me as the warmest, the most emotionally accessible, the most real.

Isle of Dogs boils over, not just with kinesthetic fur, but with visual details, cinematic references, and, in a relatively new development for this filmmaker, topical political ideas. Not every one of those ideas is fully cooked, mind you. This movie can be disappointingly retrograde, especially when it comes to female characters, an area that’s never been Anderson’s strong suit. And the case could be made that the story—co-written by Anderson, his longtime writing partners Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura—is overstuffed, with a prologue, two separate voice-over narrators, multiple flashbacks from both canine and human points of view, and three separate romantic subplots. But it’s hard to resist Isle of Dogs’ energy and wit, the filmmakers’ evident joy in exploring the miniature world they’ve imagined.

That dystopic place is the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki, 20 years into the future. An outbreak of “snout fever” causes the dog-hating mayor, Kobayashi (voiced by co-writer Nomura), to exile the entire species to a toxic dump site known as Trash Island—even though the dictatorial mayor’s warning that the contagion is about to spread to the human population appears to be nothing but dogphobic fearmongering. The first pet to go—“dog zero” in the snout fever pandemic—is Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber), the fiercely loyal guardian of the mayor’s orphaned ward, 12-year-old Atari (voiced by newcomer Koyu Rankin).

By the time his owner makes it to Trash Island in a puddle-jumper prop plane, Spots is nowhere to be found. But the island—stacked high with Wall-E–style cubes of compressed junk—is densely populated with sick dogs scavenging for scraps. Four of these former pets befriend the boy: comfort-craving Rex (Edward Norton), gossip-loving Duke (Jeff Goldblum), former dog-food spokes-hound King (Bob Balaban), and ex-baseball mascot Boss (Bill Murray). On the fringes of their group is Chief (Bryan Cranston), a never-tamed stray who scorns the servitude of domestication. Eventually all five dogs set out with the boy to search for the missing Spots, who is rumored to have linked up with a pack of feral cannibalistic dogs at the far end of the island.

Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, a scientist sympathetic to the dogs’ plight (Ken Watanabe) rushes to create a serum, while an American exchange student, Tracy (Greta Gerwig), as a reporter for her middle school newspaper, tries to find out the truth about Mayor Kobayashi’s corruption. (That last subplot is the movie’s weakest, and also the most open to charges of cultural insensitivity. I could’ve done without Tracy entirely, but we’ll get to that later.)

As dark as the dogs’ reality is—dark enough to earn the film a PG-13 rating—the establishment of their world unfolds like a crazy quilt of visual and aural pleasures. There are clouds of smoke made out of cotton. A taiko-drum–based score by Alexandre Desplat (with major contributions from taiko drummer and composer Kaoru Watanabe) that’s at once martial and delicate. A gemlike minutelong montage about the preparation of poisoned sushi. Woodblock-style prints of long-ago dog-and-cat samurai warfare. Isle of Dogs draws from the samurai-movie tradition—and quotes a music cue from Seven Samurai twice—but the Kurosawa subgenre it most resembles is the gritty noir-influenced thrillers he made with Toshiro Mifune. That actor’s legendary scowl was the inspiration for the face of the villainous mayor, rendered, like the other human characters, in a hard plasticine that looks less tactile and more chilly than the dogs’ alpaca-wool fluff.

Whether some of this cultural borrowing verges on irresponsible appropriation is a question for someone more Japanese than I to answer. (In what seems to be a gesture toward acknowledging the incompleteness of translation, the spoken Japanese goes unsubtitled and only is occasionally translated by an official interpreter, voiced by Frances McDormand. The dogs’ language is rendered as English.) But as a fellow Westerner who loves that country’s art and cinema, I’ll just say that many of the Japanese classics he quotes from themselves borrowed nonstop from American movies, whether Western or noir. There’s no such thing as purity when it comes to genre. Isle of Dogs also draws heavily from Hollywood prison-break movies like The Great Escape, with the nattering conversation among the four mild-mannered ex-pets doubling as a spoof of traditional macho banter, while the virile but emotionally closed-off Chief tries to toughen them into a band of brothers.

When women enter the picture, the script is less assured. Scarlett Johansson voices Nutmeg, a former show dog who’s an unapproachable loner until she begins to warm to the fiercely independent (and comically self-mythologizing) Chief. I have no objection to ScarJo as a sexy femme fatale—au contraire—but Nutmeg has little more to do than look (forgive me) fetching while the boys admire how well-groomed she is. Really? Gerwig’s role as the stubborn reporter Tracy is slightly meatier, and she voices the part well, but there’s more than a touch of cringe in the fact that a white American kid has to swoop in to report the truth. If we can imagine a history with canine and feline samurai wars, I think we can imagine a Megasaki native who exposes her own corrupt mayor.

But these reservations weren’t enough to turn me off Isle of Dogs, which, if it lacks the compact perfection of Fantastic Mr. Fox, represents a further step into new territory for Wes Anderson.

I’ve sometimes faulted his films for being too walled in by their own obsessively constructed worlds. But here as in The Grand Budapest Hotel, the director’s seemingly insatiable drive to build the perfect dollhouse takes on a larger, sadder perspective: The tiny utopias he (and often his characters) so painstakingly create teeter on the edge of much bigger historical dystopias. Isle of Dogs’ title contains—or rather is—a pun that reveals the movie’s true theme. It’s a surprisingly sentimental message for the constitutionally wry Anderson, but it worked on the tear ducts of this dog- and dollhouse-loving viewer: to get off the island, we’re going to need love.