Wes Anderson is no longer an acquired taste; we all know what to expect. Deep-seated family drama, painstakingly crafted backgrounds, stilted dialogue. You're either onboard or you're not, and anyone who expects the emergence of a true genre-buster is kidding themselves.
Yet whether you're a fan of the Wes originals (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore), his more broadly engaging work (Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel) or—like me—a lifelong The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou defender, it's hard to criticize his foray into stop-motion animation for Fantastic Mr. Fox. It might not have been his deepest film but it was certainly his most fun, and it had heart to spare.
Isle of Dogs doesn't mirror that blueprint. Yet for a director whose films have always been labeled "meticulously busy," this might be the most meticulous and busy of the bunch. Every inch of the frame matters, and every model and 'set' is absurdly detailed. Visually, it's an obsessive reaching his apex. Though not his best feature story- or character-wise, it's further proof that this style of animation fits the auteur like a glove.
It takes place in a near-future Japan, where a dog flu virus has given the canine-hating mayor of Megasaki City the chance to banish all dogs to Trash Island. The first to go is Spots (Liev Schreiber), the bodyguard of the mayor's ward Atari (Koyu Rankin). As the dogs begin to pile up—including the foursome of Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban) and Boss (Bill Murray)—Atari steals a small plane, crash lands on the island, and begins looking for his beloved pet.
The voice cast is a murderer's row: Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Scarlett Johansson, and even Yoko Ono join the aforementioned big names. Did you ever think you'd live long enough to see the star of Mean Streets and Reservoir Dogs voice a gruff survivor of canine medical testing? Unlike that dark stretch in the 2000s when animated movies started casting on name value alone—and suffered for it—Anderson knows who can make his dialogue work and signs them up.
The writer-director also justifies his dog-centric story by making excellent use of canine idiosyncrasies. Much like Mr. Fox's wild animals being unable to change, he reinforces a dog's need to serve its master by depicting even the most hardened stray breaking down when asked to fetch a stick. And the general wonderment at the powers of Swinton's tiny wise Oracle are quickly dashed when its revealed that she's just good at deciphering what's on TV.
This is all benefited immensely by some remarkable stop-motion work. Andy Gent, head of puppets, says the movie required "1,105 animatable puppets of dogs and humans and 2,000 background characters," which speaks to how much Anderson's filmmaking and this method of animation complement each other. It's an insane craftsman finding a whole new layer of madness that accompanies his own.
The plot proves a bit disjointed. It's jarring how certain characters rise and fade from prominence; the Rex/King/Boss trio all but disappears at the halfway point. And the film comes to a too-tidy resolution; Anderson has a history of going dark and then finding light at the conclusion, and Isle of Dogs certainly has an ominous feel throughout. This particular good-natured finale, however, feels abrupt and unearned.
Some critics have furrowed their brows at Anderson's representation of Japanese culture, and it's hard to argue when focusing on Gerwig's too-prominent foreign exchange student. The writer-director has always seemed unwilling, or unable, to go beyond his comfort zone; to leave that hyper-specialization aside, at least setting-wise, was bound to inspire criticism. When your last international foray was basically "gee, India sure is a fun backdrop for the journey of these three emotionally stunted white dudes," you aren't getting the benefit of the doubt.
That said, Isle of Dogs doesn't feel exploitative, just occasionally clunky. Wes Anderson and his garnish scarves may not be the best choice to tell any foreign-based tale, but I think any missteps are clumsy attempts to stretch his own lens. They may raise an eyebrow or two, but they don't make the proceedings any less enjoyable. This isn't top-notch Anderson; it's not Mr. Fox. But it's another worthy entry in a filmography that never felt like it could go on for this long. It's a testament to Anderson that, despite what feel like inescapable limitations, he's extended his style for over two decades and counting.