The best justification for making an animated movie is that its story couldn’t best be told any other way. This is certainly the case with writer-director Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” a stop-motion tour de force so flabbergastingly original that, despite being replete with references to other movies, it is practically a genre entirely unto itself.
“Isle of Dogs” is Anderson’s second foray into stop-motion animation, coming after the delightfully inventive 2009 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and clearly he’s progressed both technically and conceptually. He’s made a movie that does indeed seem as if it could only have been told in the way he tells it.
Set primarily in a near-future fantasyland Japan, “Isle of Dogs” posits a world where dogs have been exiled from the teeming city of Megasaki to a remote garbage dump called Trash Island because of the rampant spread of “dog flu” and “snout fever” that is crossing into the human population. The hatchet-faced mayor, Mr. Kobayashi, is descended from a long line of dog haters, so it becomes increasingly clear, especially when a pair of scientists reveal that they are on the verge of discovering a cure, that something more conspiratorial is afoot. (Kobayashi is voiced by Kunichi Nomura, who, along with Anderson, Roman Coppola, and Jason Schwartzman, receives story credit.)
The littered landscape where the dogs have been discarded is bleak and grayed out. They scavenge in packs. In short order, we are introduced to the reigning gang, which includes its ostensible leader, Rex (Edward Norton); Boss (Bill Murray), a former mascot for a kids’ baseball team; King (Bob Balaban), who used to be the spokesdog for a popular brand of dog food; and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), the isle’s incessant gossipmonger. In all cases, their bark is much worse than their bite.
There’s also the surly, coal-black stray, Chief (Bryan Cranston), who makes it clear to all that he never bowed to any human master and that he loves to bite – hard. There’s even a sort of love interest, the diffident Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), a former show dog who, unlike the others, has somehow managed to keep her fur looking fresh and shiny. (She ruefully notes, “I wouldn’t bring puppies into this world.”)
The central plotline, which toggles back and forth in time, is set in motion when 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin), the mayor’s ward, crash-lands his stolen prop plane on Trash Island in search of his beloved guard dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). If there is a core of feeling to this movie, it’s here: Despite all of Anderson’s hyperinventive filigree, this is still essentially a movie about a boy and his dog. (It helps that Anderson obviously adores pooches. The title of this movie, spoken quickly, sounds like “I Love Dogs.”)
Despite its zigzaggy wit, ‘Isle of Dogs’ is also a political movie, to a far greater degree than we have previously seen from Anderson, and with sometimes too heavy a hand. The overlords of Megasaki conjure up any number of tyrants on the international stage, and the enforced exile of the hapless canines also strikes a nerve. There’s even a Millennial-style firebrand, Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), an American foreign-exchange student with a big bubble of blond hair, who edits her school newspaper, The Daily Manifesto, and speaks truth to power. (Speaking of speaking, most of the Japanese dialogue goes wisely untranslated, except when a translator or communication device is involved. The dogs, however, converse in English. Subtitled dogspeak would be too weird even for Anderson.)
More so than any other Anderson movie, “Isle of Dogs” is almost fetishistically patterned. The play of sounds, colors, and textures, derived from Japanese woodblock prints and taiko war drums and films ranging from Hayao Miyazaki’s fantasias to “Godzilla” and Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” (the score of which is utilized in one sequence), is a revivifying mélange. Anderson is a minimalist craftsman with a maximalist imagination. He and his extraordinary team, which includes cinematographer Tristan Oliver and production designers Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod, have made a movie that seems both frantic and ceremonial. At times, it’s too much of a good thing. Like Terry Gilliam, Anderson is one of the few directors around who suffers from having too many good ideas. But even when he appears to be dithering for his own sweet sake, as with the shots of what looks to be a cavern of glowing sake bottles, or a shot-from-overhead, sped-up dissertation on sushi preparation, I was transfixed. There is so much to look at in “Isle of Dogs” that a second viewing is almost mandatory. You can forgive its fetishism. Mania this dedicated deserves its due. Grade: A- (Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent images.)