When we were kids we didn’t know or care how movies were made. We just watched them in a state of rapture. It’s hard to recapture that state of mind, of course, but not impossible, as “Isle of Dogs” shows. Wes Anderson’s joyous stop-motion feature looks and sounds like nothing we’ve encountered before, including his previous stop-motion feature, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which was pretty wonderful too. This one follows its own goofy rules, fills the screen with astonishing images, tells a touching tale of outcast dogs and a faithful boy, and does so with the liveliest kind of deadpan wit.
The story is set 20 years in the future in Japan – a Japan that, for all its advanced technology, recalls the early gangster sagas of Akira Kurosawa, with their noirish plots and explosive consonants. A scowling thug called Mayor Kobayashi runs Megasaki City—he looks a lot like Toshiro Mifune—and he’s responded to a surfeit of canines and an outbreak of snout fever by banishing all dogs to Trash Island, a vast garbage dump off the Japanese coast.
The hero of the piece is a 12-year- old boy named Atari, who’s Kobayashi’s ward. Atari flies himself to the island in a hijacked plane to find and then rescue his own dog, a beloved pooch named Spots. The plane is a Junior-Turbo Prop XJ-750; that means it’s a sweet little toy that seems to have been cobbled together from mismatched parts.
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” was memorably clever and very funny. “Isle of Dogs” is clever, funny, startlingly beautiful, politically acute and surprisingly heartfelt. The voice cast includes Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Jeff Goldblum and Greta Gerwig. The politics are Orwellian, with Trumpian overtones. Mayor Kobayashi is a strongman in the modern mold. He’s fanning the flames of public fear about a canine plague for which a cure has already been found, but secretly concealed. His opponent, the Science Party candidate, has been sent to prison.
On Trash Island, though, the drama is less political than human in the case of young Atari, who writes a haiku about dogs, love, spring, eternity and other subjects), and it’s quasi-but- deeply human in the case of the dogs, who yearn for the good old days with adoring masters or mistresses. It’s a defining moment for these frightened and depressed exiles, and for Chief, their leader. “We’re a pack of scary, indestructible alpha dogs!” he tells them in an effort to lift their tails and stiffen their spines. But there’s also time for romance. “I’m not a violent dog,” Chief insists to the lissome Nutmeg. “I don’t know why I bite.” Her reply is all he could ask for: “I’m not attracted to tame animals.” Mr. Anderson’s film is all a movie lover could ask for. It’s the canine version of the cat’s meow.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.