Director Wes Anderson makes his second foray into stop-motion animation with "Isle of Dogs," a movie filled with enough competing influences to resemble a dog's breakfast, yet which contains so many pleasing elements as to overcome its somewhat scattershot narrative.
Anderson might have landed in a kind of no-dog's-land by creating a movie that risks biting off more than it can chew. Graced with an art-house sensibility, the project could be a little too grim for kids and a bit too odd, or at least strange in its off-kilter design, to possess widespread adult appeal. Still, this Fox Searchlight release is an admirably ambitious film, one whose appreciation for its mishmash of genres ultimately proves infectious and winning.
Presented from the dogs' perspective, "Isle of Dogs" is all at once an environmental and animal-rights message, a tribute to Japanese cinema, and an old-fashioned boy-and-his-dog-type adventure. It's just that here, the kid speaks Japanese with only occasional translation, underscoring the fact that the dogs (who communicate in perfect English) strain to understand him.
Set in Japan "20 years in the future," the movie (which mirrors Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" by using puppets, a bit like '60s TV specials on psychedelics) focuses on a world where dogs have been infected with a flu and isolated on a desolate tract of land known as Trash Island. Their plight, in fact, is the work of a dog-hating politician who comes from a clan with a long cat-loving lineage.
That sets up a few parallel plots, starting with the dogs, who are struggling to survive their ordeal when 12-year-old Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin) bravely comes to the island, looking to find his own long-lost mutt. He encounters a group of alpha dogs that includes Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray who will have to be grudgingly won over to this whole master thing, despite the testimonials provided by his companions, voiced by Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, and Bob Balaban. Other bold-face names in the sprawling cast include Scarlett Johansson, Greta Gerwig, Harvey Keitel and Yoko Ono.
Anderson and his collaborators on the script certainly haven't created a kids' movie. The plot isn't complicated, but it does have a lot of moving parts, centered around trying to save the dogs before the bad guys can eradicate them. In an unexpectedly timely twist given the current gun-control debate, one thread involves teenagers weighing in as a voice of reason, joining Atari in his campaign, while the politician whips the populace into a fear-driven, anti-canine frenzy.
Breaking the movie into distinct acts, Anderson weaves in an abundance of wry humor, such as Goldblum's character always having some titillating new gossip to share that he's picked up via the dog grapevine. Yet there's also something undeniably sweet in the basic plot boy-dog bond, and a genuine cleverness in presenting a dog's-eye-view of this forbidding world.
In a sense, "Isle of Dogs" feels like a throwback to animated films of the past that mixed animals, and some of the cruelties they face, with a grown-up tone, perhaps most notably Martin Rosen's adaptations of Richard Adams' "Watership Down" (soon receiving a Netflix revival) and "The Plague Dogs."
"Isle of Dogs" doesn't move directly into instant-classic territory, but like those movies, it's one that might enjoy a long shelf-life -- something Anderson fans will be watching to scratch their itch for the filmmaker's particular breed of quirkiness, potentially for years to come.
"Isle of Dogs" premieres March 23 in the U.S. It's rated PG-13.