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‘Isle of Dogs’ is doggone good

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Full disclosure: I’m in the bag for Wes Anderson. From “Bottle Rocket” right on through the years, I’ve been onboard with his quirky unorthodoxy. To my mind, he’s made solid contact with every film he’s ever made, even if he hasn’t necessarily hit a home run every time out.

That being said, “Isle of Dogs” is in fact a home run.

This latest outing is a return to the stop-motion animation that he utilized so exquisitely in “Fantastic Mr. Fox” nearly a decade ago. It’s a wonderful medium with which to capture the meticulous aesthetic detail that Anderson so adores, bringing forth the deliberately old-fashioned vibe that marks so much of his work. He’s also written a sharp, funny, heartfelt script (with story credits to regular collaborators Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman as well as Kunichi Nomura) and assembled a voice cast littered with A-list talent. It’s a marvelous film that manages to be both sardonic and sweet while also creating a rich, vivid and unabashedly weird world.

In the near future, there’s a dog pandemic. An assortment of ailments are making their way through the canine population. The authoritarian mayor of Megasaki City is Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) offers a solution – remove all dogs and isolate them on Trash Island. Despite claims by noted scientist Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito, “Birdman”) that he is close to a cure, Mayor Kobayashi signs the decree. The first dog banished is Spots, the protector and friend of Kobayashi’s young ward Atari (Koyu Rankin in his feature debut).

As time passes, the dogs deal with their struggles as best they can, coming together in packs to help each other survive. One such pack is led by Chief (Bryan Cranston, “Last Flag Flying”), a former stray. The group includes the earnest Rex (Edward Norton, “Collateral Beauty”), the good-natured King (Bob Balaban, “Mascots”), former baseball mascot Boss (Bill Murray, “Ghostbusters”) and the gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum, “Thor: Ragnarok”); they don’t always agree, but they love and protect one another.

When Atari steals a plane and makes his way to Trash Island in an effort to track down and retrieve his beloved Spots, things don’t go according to plan. His only hope is for Chief and the rest to help him find his lost dog – even if not everyone in the pack is all that interested in providing that help.

Back on the mainland, Kobayashi and his minions are doing everything in their power to fully implement their dog removal strategy – a strategy whose endgame is a decidedly dark one. They round up all the animals and find ways to make sure Professor Watanabe stays out of the picture. Really, the only ones standing between the Mayor and his diabolical plan are the plucky Atari, his newfound canine companions and a handful of pro-dog activists working against the system.

“Isle of Dogs” is simply delightful. It perfectly captures the sense of whimsy that serves as the foundation of Anderson’s best work; whether you’re talking about the low-tech visual aesthetic, the sweet cleverness of the script, the choices in casting and music … it’s all on-brand for Anderson. I’ll put it this way – if you’re someone who finds Anderson’s work insufferably twee (and I totally understand if you do), you might have some issues with this one.

There’s definitely a sense of affectation when it comes to the choice of stop-motion – even a slight whiff of pretentiousness – but in Anderson’s hands, it’s OK, because there’s nothing disingenuous about it. The filmmaker has never pretended to be anything other than what he is; there’s something truly admirable about staying true to one’s creative vision like that.

Oh, and only the dogs speak English.

Yep – the vast majority of human characters speak Japanese without subtitles. There are a few in-movie devices used to make the conversion (including a character who is a literal translator), but with a scant few exceptions, the humans don’t speak English. It’s a convention that works really well; a bold choice that clicks marvelously with the film’s overall style.

(As an aside: a dog-centric movie seems like an interesting choice for Anderson, considering how poorly pets seem to fare in his films. Although considering all these dogs are basically exiled to a dystopic garbage island, one could argue that he’s sticking to that motif here as well. Just an observation.)

The movie features an outstanding ensemble. The human side of things is solid; Nomura is very good, as is Ito. There’s a wonderful sweetness to Rankin. Greta Gerwig steals some scenes as a foreign exchange student and the translator is played by Frances McDormand, of all people. Oh, and Courtney B. Vance is the Narrator. But really, this one is all about the dogs.

Cranston is phenomenal as the voice of Chief, taking us on his complicated journey from bad dog to good. Norton has a permeating sincerity in his voice; Murray and Balaban are excellent in relatively limited action. Meanwhile, Goldblum has probably the best running gag in the entire movie, one that he sells magnificently every single time. Other dogs – wise dogs, stray dogs, love interests, you name it – are voiced by a who’s who of Hollywood talent. Seriously, the list includes F. Murray Abraham, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, Liev Schreiber … just an astonishing collection of exceptional performers.

“Isle of Dogs” is pure Wes Anderson in all the best ways. It is a smart and funny story, filled with nuance and idiosyncrasy; charming and quirky and beautiful to look at. A weird, wonderful delight.

[5 out of 5]

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