Animal Instinct

At the movies: Isle of Dogs

Wes Anderson can milk the hell out of a dead dog. In the director’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Snoopy, the trusty pooch belonging to the boys from Camp Ivanhoe, is impaled by a stray arrow, making him the one fatality in a movie that includes devastating floods, a troop of preteens armed with axes, and a child being struck by lightning. In The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), the youngest Tenenbaums’ dog is crushed by a car and almost immediately replaced by the Dalmatian of the firefighter crew that arrives to assess the situation. (Yeesh.) But fittingly, Anderson’s newest film, Isle of Dogs, a stop-motion-animated visual extravaganza that’s nonetheless his weakest effort, leans the hardest on the trope. A particular dog skeleton is the source of much of the pathos early in the film, and later, during a dream sequence, our hero, Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), visualizes an army of dog skeletons melting into thin air. Call it a memento mori for the canine set.

There’s almost too much to see and hear in the film, which is infused with the spirit of one of Anderson’s admitted influences, Kurosawa, and delves into the non-space of a fictional, quirk-ified Japan just as Tenenbaums did New York and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2015) did middle Europe. Anderson seems intoxicated, as he did in his last animated feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), by the possibilities of stop-motion, and fills the frame with exquisite color and detail, which is delightful. No director since Kubrick, in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), has utilized blinding white more effectively, and one shot, in which Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray, is oriented against an illuminated cave of discarded bottles, could be the most beautiful thing Anderson’s ever composed. The voice cast, again traditionally for Anderson, is stacked: Aside from Cranston, there’s Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Jeff Goldblum (who gives the best delivery in the film, no surprise), Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand—there are more, but there’s limited space in this magazine. I almost missed Bob Balaban until I really started to pay attention. Also, strangely, Yoko Ono is in it, playing a scientist named Yoko Ono. Fair enough.

This is all well and good, but the storyline—in which Atari travels to the titular isle, where all dogs in the city of Megasaki have been banished, to find his own lost pup—runs out of steam around the time the quest comes to fruition, which is not so deep into the film as one might suspect. Anderson, who penned the script, allows his usually helpful narrative economy to run away with him here. Gerwig’s foreign exchange student, a distraction, takes up far too much of the plot for my taste, and prevents us from spending more time with dogs who, under their gorgeously articulated skin, might be more than one-joke characters. (Tilda Swinton’s Oracle, a “clairvoyant” pug, receives her cosmic wisdom by “understanding TV,” which is funny, but maybe not funny enough for Tilda Swinton.) There’s too much going on on the surface and not so much under, with the net result being that the movie, despite being aesthetically beautiful, seems to end before it begins.

What Anderson is trying to do here, it becomes increasingly clear, is make an actual children’s movie—albeit one with his customary minor acts of bloody violence—as opposed to Fox, which had a complex emotionality and a keen sense of family dysfunction that lumped it more comfortably in his ouevre. In Isle of Dogs: Big-city child loses pet. Pet falls in with pack of ragtag strays. Powerful criminal organization prevents child from getting to pet. Child finds pet after action-heavy chase sequence. Child is reunited with pet, and criminals are suitably punished. This is the exact plot of Disney’s Oliver and Company (1988), which is not nearly so nice to look at as Isle of Dogs, but has the distinct advantage of co-starring Billy Joel. Eat your heart out, Yoko.