The specter of death looms large over Isle of Dogs, even more so than 101 Dalmatians or Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. While it’s obvious that Wes Anderson and his collaborators love adorable doggos, it doesn’t have any problems showing you the corpse of a dog (or a human for that matter). Yes, this is an animated movie about a group of pups and a 12-year-old boy going on an adventure, but it is most certainly not for kids.
Set in a fictional province of Japan in the future, a corrupt mayor (co-writer Kunichi Nomura) has shipped all dogs off to a toxic landfill called Trash Island, where they’re forced to fend off scraps and whatever garbage continues to be dumped there. The pretext is that the dogs are carrying “snout fever,” which can become “dog flu” in humans. (There’s an allegory here that Anderson isn’t really interested in exploring, which is probably for the best.)
Our band of alpha dogs – Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and stray Chief (Bryan Cranston) – more or less rule the island, or at least are left alone by the other mutts. When Atari (Koyu Rankin) crashes his plane on the island in search of his faithful companion Spots (Liev Schreiber), everyone but Chief is excited to help.
The mission on the island plays out as expected, with Chief warming up to young Atari, and peril threatening our very good boys at every turn. But back in Megasaki, there’s a whole lot going on that feels like a different movie. There’s murder, corruption and a foreign exchange student (Greta Gerwig) out to uncover the truth. And this is where it becomes clear that while the movie may not be insensitive to Japanese culture, there’s absolutely no reason to tell this story in this place. It could just as easily be Finland or Greece or the coast of California.
Isle of Dogs, like all of Anderson’s films, is meticulously crafted, well-acted and often hilarious. This is his second foray into animation, but unlike Fantastic Mr. Fox, it’s a lot shaggier and less focused. I certainly wouldn’t call it slow, but it’s missing the zip that his Roald Dahl adaptation had.
The film has some great gags, including a recurring bit where all the animals are wowed by Oracle (Tilda Swinton), who can “see the future,” but really just understands what she sees on the news. There’s plenty of Anderson’s trademark handmade quirkiness and the animation is often stunning. And in some ways, this is both his sweetest and darkest movie. (He’s had villains before, but none so evil they would hatch a plan to gas every single remaining dog.) Isle of Dogs is a delight as usual, but not on the next level of his best work.