Review: On the ‘Isle of Dogs,’ Wes Anderson Howls for Empathy

Wes Anderson’s latest stop-motion spectacle wags its tail with urgency and heart.

RATING: ★★★★ (out of four stars)

Whether we’re slumming with the Tenenbaums, under the sea with Steve Zizzou or spending time with the Fantastic Mr. Fox, we’ve never struggled to know what Wes Anderson wants us to get out of his work.

His films are quaint, dry and proper, tied-string parcels with plaid wrapping paper, and not a dab of excess in the folding and cutting. Every square inch is planned out ahead of time with the rigorous dedication of mounting a tiny sailboat in a cut glass bottle. He’s a mad scientist for the meticulous, and his latest creation, the stop-motion Isle of Dogs, finds him at his most comfortable, his most adventurous and his most pensive.

In a “wait, this sounds familiar” plotline, a fictional Japanese bustle named Megasaki City has outlawed all dogs after a dangerous virus breaks out amongst the canine population. Once trusted friends by the fireplace, dogs have been vilified by the populous as “bad boys” with the same kind of mass hysteria that plagues any group that’s unfairly aligned with a crime or convolution linked back to one of its members. The city’s mayor, Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), has a bad family history with man’s best friend, and is more than happy to propagate “anti-pup” messages to the people so he can rid his town of those dastardly tail-wagers once and for all.

So, the pooch population is exiled to Trash Island just outside of the city’s skyline, and Kobayashi rallies the fever pitch to best his opponent in re-election, a doctor and member of the “science party.” Hounding hysteria over reason in a campaign season? You can see the themes crawling around here like fleas on a poodle.

Enter Atari (Koyu Rankin), the mayor’s adopted nephew, a spry lad on the warpath to save his bodyguard dog Spots, who the mayor exiled first in his puppy purge. Atari has not fallen sway to the bark-based brainwashing and takes a small plane to Trash Island to save his trusted companion from whatever harm could befall him on a place called “Trash Island.” Once there, he finds Chief (a gruff, then touching Bryan Cranston), a human-averse stray, and his companions Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balabin), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). The latter four are no strangers to Anderson’s twee tales and accompany their pups with the same dry candor and earnest yearns that mark any character in one of the director’s works.

The other dogs are taken by the boy’s worry and drive for his friend, something they’ve not seen from their previous owners, and feel obliged to help him across Trash Island’s tainted vista to save Spots. Chief’s less sure, but as time goes on, he, of course, finds that, as Scarlett Johansson’s elegant, exiled show dog Nutmeg says, “he’s a 12-year-old-boy. Dogs love those.” But, of course, Kobayashi is on the hunt for his lost ward, a wrench in his grand plan to rid the city of a pooch presence once and for all.

The director’s crafted sets are vibrant and exact. Stop-motion is a heck of a medium for realism and careful planning, and Anderson has the patience and the creativity to make the form sing. It’s the best of its kind since 2016’s Kubo and the Two Strings, also rooted in a respect for Asian culture and its visual storytelling, but therein also lies the film’s core issue.

Anderson’s last sprawling effort, The Grand Budapest Hotel, saw him excavate every nook and cranny of western Europe’s mountainous regions without drawing a lot of ire for the way he handled the culture. He was less-successful in that arena with The Darjeeling Limited, and in Isle, he once again finds himself a tourist in another culture’s story, one he felt compelled to tell himself. It’s not for lack of trying – Anderson sees the film as a love letter to Japanese cinema and its heritage – but when one of the film’s central heroes is a white foreign exchange student from Cincinnati, and a few of its villains unfortunate caricatures from film’s past, you can see the need for, at the very least, more of a advisory role for the culture its trying to respect to better understand what does and doesn’t fly in the rendering.

But, congruently, the film tries to hold a mirror up to what the world is becoming – one where a society getting rid of dogs over misinformed propaganda and homegrown hate isn’t all that unrealistic. We create “scapedogs” every day out of anything we’re scared of or hold a grudge against, and Anderson isn’t going to let the audience out of the doghouse on it. Atari’s compassion for his beloved pup glows like a lantern in the fog, as does the softening of Chief’s gruff exterior. The film hammers in time after time, in brief, delicate moments, the need for empathy for those who are in need, and how vile it is to slap empathy down for achievement or cruelty. All of Anderson’s films have some level of warmth, but few have this fierce of a bite.

If Anderson can better learn to lean on the cultures he’s visiting to guide where he takes the story and how he designs the characters, he’ll be far better off. But, even so, Isle of Dogs is one of his best movies, one that puts his best strengths on display, and amplifies one of his angriest, most desperate messages.