There is an out-of-body melancholy that sets in about three quarters of the way through Wes Anderson’s ninth feature “Isle of Dogs .”
Yes, you will be inexplicably wrapped up in the drama of a gang of sickly stop-motion animated dogs who have been exiled to a trash island and are determined to get back to a life of cozy domesticity, enchanted by its artistry and trying your best to suppress your laughter so you don’t miss a beat.
But you also start to realize that it will soon be over and you’ll have to go back to your day bereft of that wit, imagery and storytelling, essentially nursing an acute case of Wes Anderson wistfulness. A small price to pay for 101 minutes of joy, I guess.
With story help from Anderson mainstays Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman and new addition Kunichi Nomura, Anderson writes a fable of sorts set 20 years in the future, when canine flu has infected an entire population of dogs, causing manic behavior, weight loss and adorable sneezing. It’s also sparked an anti-dog mania in Japan that has left some searching for a cure and others eager to just rid the country of the problem. The leader, Mayor Kobayashi (Nomura) and his ghoulish henchmen Major-Domo (Akira Takayama) respond in turn by exiling all dogs to a trash island and rejecting any possibility of a scientific solution to the disease.
The humans, however, are decidedly the supporting cast members in “Isle of Dogs,” which more than a few people have already pointed out sounds a heck of a lot like “I Love Dogs.” On the island, the once pampered set of house pets have all gone (somewhat) wild, fighting over maggot-infested scraps and dreaming of the days of doggie treats, baths and plush pillows to sleep on. They’ve self-divided into little survivalist troupes and whisper to one another about rumors of cannibal dogs on the other side of the island.
The group we follow is led by Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray among house pets, and made up of Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). And their world is upended when a boy they refer to as “the little pilot,” Atari (Koyu Rankin), crashes on the island.
“Are we eating him or is this a rescue?” one dog asks the gang as they look at Atari’s burning wreckage.
“Not sure yet,” another responds.
Anderson has used similar constructions before, but it’s the perfect encapsulation of his humor — precise, straight-forward and a little dark. “Isle of Dogs” is positively littered with his signature banter, and it as quick and wry as ever, without a single hair out of place.
And speaking of hair, the look of “Isle of Dogs” is just otherworldly — vibrant, purposeful and jam-packed with details that will make you want to watch it over and over. Very young kids might beware, there is one gnarly scene involving a kidney operation, not to mention the fact that Atari spends the entire film with a piece of scrap metal in his skull.
You may just want to do a quick refresher on the voice actors before sitting down for a showing too, otherwise you might go just a little mad trying to place where you’ve heard that voice before. There’s Scarlett Johansson as a pristine show dog, Nutmeg, Greta Gerwig as a young freckled girl leading the pro-dog movement, Frances McDormand as an interpreter. “Isle of Dogs” also features the vocal stylings of Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Fisher Stevens, Liev Schreiber, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham and Courtney B. Vance, as the narrator, too. Oh, and Angelica Huston has a credit as “mute poodle.”
That Anderson can still excitingly tell a new story within the structure of his unique visual language that we’ve gotten to know so well is just a testament to his incandescent genius. We don’t deserve Wes Anderson, but we should be eternally grateful he doesn’t seem to mind.
“Isle of Dogs,” a Fox Searchlight release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for, “thematic elements and some violent imagery.” Running time: 101 minutes. Four stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.