In Isle of Dogs, director Wes Anderson tells the story a control-freak leader determined to impose a carefully cultivated narrative on his public.
Which is to say, Anderson is making a movie about himself. And often to amusing effect. With its appealing (and often unprecedented) use of stop-motion animation, Isle of Dogs achieves a scruffy Anderson charm, albeit through the deployment of obsessive planning and onerous labor. How would you like to be the miniaturist who painted the 40,000 freckles on the tiny porcelain masks of the stop-motion characters?
Or applied actual human eyebrow hair to the tiny eyebrows?
Yes, people worked like dogs to create this story of a society that bans dogs. The film is set in Japanese-ish city (its location is really the realm of imagination, a fusion of anime images and other motifs) some years in the future, where an autocratic, cat-loving, dog-hating mayor has fostered a "tidal wave of anti-dog hysteria," using an outbreak of dog flu as a pretext for exiling all dogs to Trash Island, where they scrape out a living among the scraps.
The plot gets rolling when the mayor's adopted son Atari (voice of Koyu Rankin) hijacks a plane to Trash Island, determined to find his beloved dog Spot (voice of Liev Schreiber), with the assistance of several canine castoffs.
The story is told from the point of view of these exiled dogs – the "human" characters speak Japanese, the dogs speak English, a language regime that itself becomes part of Anderson's inquiry into perspective and understanding. The dogs puzzle out the boy's mission, and work to assist him on his long and winding road to Spot.
Who is the leader of the pack? Well that's one of the movie's running jokes. A quartet of agreeable dogs (Ed Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Jeff Goldblum) form a mini-democracy, and put everything up to a vote. The angry dissenter, every time, is Chief (Bryan Cranston) who also (as the football coaches like to say) has the most dog in him.
"I bite," says the never-domesticated Chief, defining his personality and explaining his life as a stray — also why he is so well-suited to life on the island, and, as it happens, the best choice to protect and help Atari.
The movie takes its sweet time resolving the story of Atari and Spot — frequently diverting to update us on a parallel drama back in the city, where exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig) has uncovered the mayor's anti-dog conspiracy, and acts to stop it before it gets worse.
This subplot has put Anderson in the doghouse. In granting such a key role to a Western character, he's been accused of whitewashing. And yes, Tracy's from Ohio, but to my eyes her Sailor Moon garb (and stylized Gerwig vocal work) mark her as a citizen of the racially ambiguous anime world, absorbed here into Anderson's synthesis of image and sound, all in the service of his famously idiosyncratic world-building.
This includes dialogue that takes the form of haiku, Alexandre Desplat's stark taiko drum score, which is atmospheric and also emphasizes the silences that help Anderson's animation, like The Fantastic Mr. Fox, feel unique.
Really, though, the chief pleasure of Isle of Dogs is admiring its lovably tactile stop-motion creatures (more than 1,000 rendered characters, a stop-motion record) and meticulous backdrops, giving the movie a deep-focus depth of field uncommon to animation.
Even the trash heaps are collections of curated objects and treasures. The work is painstaking, but for the most part we don't feel the pains taken to achieve it. It's there to be marveled at.
Less marvelous is Anderson's discursive story – 101 Digressions – written with Roman Coppola and Kunichi Nomura – sometimes suffocated by exposition, so that the studied casualness feels more studied than casual. Emotions are often described rather than actually produced: In the movie's climactic scenes, when Anderson's busy animators shows us glycerin tears rolling down the furry faces of the dogs, we see it more than feel it.
It's Anderson's tale wagging the dog.