Rating: 2.5 stars
Viewers may be forgiven for being confused by Wes Anderson’s movies. Constructed with dollhouse fastidiousness, their hyper-symmetrical, squared-off tableaus dressed with gorgeous textures and color palettes — and their clipped dialogue delivered with deadpan sincerity — they depict a universe with only glancing resemblance to the real world. A tonal mash-up of ironic distance and emotional manipulation, they invite the audience to laugh knowingly one minute, and to coo with empathy the next. They’re moviedom’s fussiest, most arcane inside joke.
All of these gifts, contradictions and irritations abound in “Isle of Dogs,” Anderson’s ninth movie and his second stop-animation feature. Like his first one, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” this is both a celebration and sendup of cartoon anthropomorphism. Taking his cues from Akira Kurosawa, Rankin/Bass holiday specials, “The Little Prince,” “Lady and the Tramp” and Japanese kaiju movies, Anderson has adapted his usual jewel-box aesthetic into bento-box proportions: “Isle of Dogs” bursts with color (including extravagant swaths of crimson) and precious detail, and is shot through with the filmmaker’s reliably understated humor.
The degree to which any of this will appeal to filmgoers beyond Anderson’s core constituency is debatable. True to its title, “Isle of Dogs” is a circuitous collection of false starts, flashbacks and — sorry, there’s no other word for it — doglegs that are far less captivating than the formal beauty on display. Put most briefly: The story takes place 20 years into the future, when the Stalinesque, cat-loving mayor of a Japanese city has banished dogs to a place called Trash Island, having spread the vicious lie that they carry an incurable disease. When his 12-year-old ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) travels to the island to rescue his faithful guard dog, Spots, he falls in with a plucky band of former pets and their leader, a street-toughened stray named Chief.
Voiced by Bryan Cranston, Chief is the Bogartlike antihero of “Isle of Dogs,” which features the voices of such frequent Anderson collaborators as Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban and Frances McDormand. Although it can be fun to try to match the voice with the character — Norton, Murray, Balaban and Jeff Goldblum are particularly amusing as Chief’s ragtag posse — the chief attractions here are the visuals, from the gently blowing alpaca wool of the dogs’ fur and the vagrant beauty of the detritus they live in to the waxy translucence of Atari’s skin and the retro-futuristic look of the fictional metropolis he calls home.
Not everything is too-too adorable in “Isle of Dogs,” which possesses more than its share of grimness, suffering and death. (The film includes a particularly beautiful and brutal sushi-making scene.) Even if it belongs to a puppet, the sight of a dog’s ear that’s been bitten off sends a discomfiting jolt. And the specter of cultural appropriation haunts a production that clearly revels in the design elements and mood-board inspirations of Japanese technology and art, but also commits a few patronizing missteps. One subplot features Greta Gerwig as Tracy, a spirited American exchange student who rallies her meekly obedient Japanese cohorts to save the dogs, at one point literally throttling a scientist named Yoko Ono who is voiced by Yoko Ono. Ha . . . ha?
With its solemn children escaping the long arm of selfish, unfeeling adult controllers, “Isle of Dogs” shares the cardinal themes of Anderson’s oeuvre, “Moonrise Kingdom” in particular. Does this variation offer anything genuinely new? In its own messy, slightly ungovernable way, this digressive bagatelle feels looser than some of Anderson’s most tightly controlled mis-en-scenes. But the story, for all its busyness, is negligible. The script feels less like an organic whole than an effort to keep building up a scrawny central premise until it felt like a movie. “Isle of Dogs” possesses moments of memorable beauty, but even at its most observant and obsessively painstaking, it’s still little more than a shaggy-dog story.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains mature thematic elements and some violent images. 94 minutes.