It’s been almost a decade since writer-director Wes Anderson took time off from making quirky, thoughtful, whimsical live action films (“Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”) and turned out the quirky, thoughtful, whimsical stop-motion animated film “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” That furry story had a stellar voice cast that was topped by George Clooney and Meryl Streep. Now, with a couple more live films under his belt, Anderson goes back to Gumby-style animation and another great cast with the even furrier “Isle of Dogs,” and that quirk, thought, and whimsy remains intact, as does Anderson’s distinctive and bountiful sense of humor.
This is a kids’ film all the way, but here’s hoping that adults will also run to it like a pack of dogs, as it’s equally for that crowd.
Set in a future Japan, the film’s prologue, narrated by a dog named Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) is a history lesson about the ancient wars between a dog-loving clan and a cat-loving clan, which resulted in dogs being relegated to pet status.
But though there are dogs aplenty in this story, there are all sorts of people along with them. Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) runs Megasaki City, where canine problems, including the possible spread of dog flu to humans, are rampant. Kobayashi, a cat lover, suggests that all dogs be banished to Trash Island. But Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) doesn’t agree, calling the mayor’s plan cruel and unscientific. He intends to develop a serum to cure dog flu, which should also take care of the accompanying condition snout fever.
Alas, Kobayashi gets his way, and in the film’s opening minutes, the bemused and blue-eyed Spots (Liev Schreiber) becomes the first dog — a pet, mind you — to be caged up and sent to Trash Island. Six months later, a huge population of banished dogs lives there, many of them sneezing, most of them hungry and fighting for scraps of food in the mounds of garbage.
In an attempt to help viewers understand what’s going on, a disclaimer mentions that all of their barks have been translated into English, and one of the first things we hear is a pep talk given by Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray who just might have leadership qualities. Among those listening are the film’s quartet of protagonists: Rex, (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and King (Bob Balaban). All of these dogs are soon involved with Atari (Koyu Rankin), a young lad who, after stealing a small airplane, crash-lands on the island and sets about searching for his pet: Spots. For a little Shakespearian flavor, Atari is the nephew (and adopted son) of the increasingly malevolent Kobayashi, the man responsible for sending Spots into exile.
Jumping back and forth between Trash Island and Megasaki City, the script traces the positive actions of Professor Watanabe, the negative ones of Kobayashi and his henchman Major-Domo, introduces some vicious robot dogs, presents a possible romantic side story involving the show dog Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), tosses in a thriller element, and gets into political wrongdoing.
Human actions are significant here, but everyone’s attention will be on the four-legged characters. There’s a wonderful sequence in which Chief, Rex, Boss, Duke, and King take a few minutes to reminisce about the good old days, in the midst of which Chief tells the others his complicated back story.
As always, Anderson features music (the score is by his regular collaborator Alexandre Desplat) as a central part of the film, and makes terrific use of the dreamy and endearing mid-1960s song “I Won’t Hurt You” by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band.
It’s so nice to see a movie where one question is can dogs save the day, and a partial answer is that the story has some really wicked people but no bad dogs. But one of the film’s biggest joys is that it has a minor character who is referred to as Yoko Ono-san, and is voiced by Yoko Ono.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.
“Isle of Dogs”
Written and directed by Wes Anderson
With voices of Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban