Wes Anderson is a master storyteller, and I told him that years ago at a Times Talks program, and when it comes to animation, he delights us with his visions, quirkiness, and imagination. “Isle of Dogs,” his first stop-motion animated feature since “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” is a poetic haiku to the harsh realities of dogs. In fact, I loved it even more than that.
This may have been promoted in trailers to kids movies, but this is a movie for teens and adults. It’s PG-13 for some violence and language (and wait till you see my favorite lines), and these aren’t characters a small child could relate to. Most kids these days (as far as I’m concerned) want the annoying ones who think they’re funny (“Trolls” or “Smurfs: The Lost Village”). But in my perspective, “Isle of Dogs” cares about the characters as humans, even if some of them have fleas.
Inspired by the works of Akira Kurosawa, the movie takes place in Japan, 20 years in the future, when a disease known as “Dog Flu” inspires its dog-hating Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura, one of the writers) to exile the dogs to Trash Island, where they live out their lives in misery and filth.
The main dogs we meet are former pets Rex (voiced by Edward Norton), King (voiced by Bob Balaban), Duke (voiced by Jeff Goldblum), and Boss (voiced by Bill Murray), and their disgruntled stray companion Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston). He tells his miserable friends: “I’ve seen cats with more balls than you,” indicating he would rather live out the life of a stray than a pet.
Just then Kobayashi’s adoptive nephew Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin) arrives on the island with a hijacked plane, because he is looking for his bodyguard dog Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber), whom he has loved over the years. As much as Chief is unhappy about it, he and his friends help the boy find him.
The star-studded voice cast includes Greta Gerwig as a Foreign Exchange Student, who knows what’s really going on with Kobayashi and his confidants; Scarlett Johansson as a former show dog, whom Chief has a crush on; Courtney B. Vance as the film’s narrator; F. Murray Abraham and Tilda Swinton as two wise dogs; Harvey Keitel as a dog who once resorted to cannibalism; and translations of the Japanese language (mostly on televised messages) are often provided by Frances McDormand and Frank Wood.
I loved “Isle of Dogs,” another gem in Wes Anderson’s magical vision of movies. I loved it for the way it shows us a change of heart in Chief and his views on humans; the way the voice actors don’t sound like cartoon characters, but people with feelings and ambitions; and the way Anderson has everything organized from the dialogue to the sets to the characters.
It’s hard for me to decide who is the best voice actor in the movie, but I can tell you this is Bryan Cranston’s best voice performance to date. And this is one of the best stop motion films I’ve ever seen.