‘Isle of Dogs’: New Wes Anderson animation has veins of radical politics under all that fur
From the wit of Wes Anderson, the man behind “Rushmore” (1998) and “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) comes a stop-motion animation gem that shares as much in common with Anderson’s other such project, “Fabulous Mr. Fox” (2009), as it is a total departure. There’s plenty more canines and perfectly orchestrated animation, and it takes place in a Japan some 20 years in the future and is loaded with small political powder kegs.
Co-written by Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura, the action takes place in the aptly if generically named fictional city of Megasaki, where an outbreak of snout fever (dog flu) strikes and the metro’s Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Nomura with abrupt, macho intonations suggestive of indelible Japanese cinematic icon Toshiro Mifune), banishes all dogs to a “trash island” where waste is carted by unmanned trams across the watery expanse and processed through a series of “Wall-E”-esque automation facilities. The result is an ever-rising mass of neatly stacked cubes of rubbish that take on the effect of tiered stadium seating. No humans, unless in hazmat suits, visit.
“Isle of Dogs” begins with a bit of lore that finds Kobayashi’s ancestors battling the four-legged beasts before reaching a truce in which dogs submit to domestication, getting some pretty nice perks as well as the label of “man’s best friend.” The Kobayashi clan, not-so-covert lovers of felines, maintain deep-seeded resentment – and snout fever, it turns out, presents a prime opportunity for some payback.The first pooch to go is Kobayashi’s own, Spots (Liev Schreiber), a short-haired Oceanic speckle-eared sport hound and guardian of an orphan boy blessed with the game name of Atari (Koyu Rankin). Young Atari, not so keen on the dismissal, steals a prop plane and, not surprisingly – as it’s unlikely a 12-year-old will be a licensed aviator – crash lands on the island. He spends much of the film with part of the propeller prop sticking out of his head. Neither this nor an ever-present trickle of blood deters the lad from searching for his dog, nor the waves of minions and robotic dogs sent by his uncle to bring him back, but Spots is hard to find. There’s even some doubt as to if he’s still alive, but Atari, aided by a pack of self-proclaimed “alpha males” led by mangy Chief (Bryan Cranston, perfectly gruff), remains resolute.
Anderson grants furry-footed cast members the ability to speak in English, while Atari and Kobayashi speak in their native tongue; we get Frances McDormand as a translator for the info we need to know. It’s a pretty seamless transition from the ever-deepening search for Spots to a student uprising led by an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) with a billowy blond Afro and a team of scientists (Yoko Ono voicing the faithful assistant) working on a cure. Where it’s all going remains pleasantly murky and beside the point.
With the Parkland shooting so fresh and the national walkout movement in full swing, the student protest angle feels well-timed. Some may take exception that it’s an American leading the charge – and point taken, but keep in mind this is a Wes Anderson film, meant to be taken seriously but not too seriously. Anderson’s last outings, “The Grand Hotel Budapest” (2014) and “Moonlight Kingdom” (2012) were rapturously quirky ditties driven by character and gonzo goings-on more than they were sociopolitical statements. It’s about the journey and the fabric, and while you may discern undercurrents of Dreamers being excluded and other tactics of the Trump administration, “Isle of Dogs” is all Anderson, and proudly so. It walks like a dog, talks like a human and travels in the ennui of the disenfranchised.
The incredible cast includes Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel and Tilda Swinton.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.