Say “Isle of Dogs” fast and it comes out sounding an awful lot like “I Love Dogs” — which makes sense, since that’s pretty much the chief takeaway from Wes Anderson’s delightful new animated feature. A winningly dippy hodgepooch of lo-fi sci-fi, band-of-outsiders adventure and the most meme-ready canine antics you’ll find outside of YouTube, this leisurely tale of abandoned mutts taking on a corrupt human government is effectively puppy-treat cinema: small, salty, perhaps not an entire meal, but rewarding nonetheless.
More than any part of its slender, precarious narrative, “Isle of Dogs” is really a film about its own enthusiasms: for four-legged fleabags of all shapes and sizes, of course, but also for the culture and cinema of Japan, which is woven with typical fastidiousness into Anderson’s magpie aesthetic. That makes it a markedly more eccentric proposition than Anderson’s first feature-length foray into stop-motion, 2009’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” — and with a PG-13 rating for its dry adult comedy, mostly played in a limbo-low key, a niche commercial prospect, too. The Anderson faithful will be tickled pink as a newborn pup, as will voters for year-end animation awards; the palpable spirit of affection driving proceedings, meanwhile, will have to be the film’s chief defense against charges of cultural appropriation.
Only the most churlish, however, could deny the film’s achievement as a dizzy feat of world-building. Given the heightened complexity of Anderson’s cinematic environments, with their whirligig detailing and multitude of moving parts, animation was always a logical sidestep for America’s most artisanal auteur, and “Isle of Dogs” doubles down on the nook-and-cranny meticulousness and mechanism fetish of “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Even the garbage in each frame — of which there is plenty, the film’s chief setting being a less-than-salubrious enclave called Trash Island — looks hand-picked by production designers Adam Stockhausen (as essential here as he was to the success of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Moonrise Kingdom”) and Paul Harrod.
If mounds of garbage aren’t quite what viewers have come to associate with Planet Wes, the slight scuzziness of “Isle of Dogs” is its great surprise: From the occasional eye-watering blurriness of its fast tracking shots to the loopy, laissez-faire nature of its storytelling, the whole enterprise might just be as messy as the director lets himself get. Beginning with the introductory on-screen explanation that only the canine characters’ dialogue will be delivered directly in English, while humans will speak simultaneously translated Japanese (essentially a strained setup for the film’s lone American, and most extraneous, character), “Isle of Dogs” revels in its own knowingly silly convolutions.
Set “before the age of obedience,” and exquisitely animated in the style of historical woodcuts, a quick, droll prologue establishes the supposed history of how cats became the dominant pet in Japanese society. Cut to the near feature, in the imaginary metropolis of Megasaki, and it seems every dog truly has had its day. Blamed by the administration of despotic mayor Kobayashi (voiced by co-writer Konichi Nomura) for a mass flu outbreak, the entire canine species is summarily banished to the offshore dumping ground of Trash Island, where surviving mongrels snarlingly duel over fetid scraps; first on the exile list is Spots (Liev Schreiber), the loyal, loving watchdog of the equally devoted Atari (Koyu Rankin), Kobayashi’s orphaned 12-year-old nephew.
While other residents of Megasaki apparently adapt quickly to their new, canine-free existence, plucky Atari won’t give up so easily: This being a Wes Anderson film, and an animated one at that, he naturally commandeers a vintage plane and crash-lands on the wretched isle to find his dog. (If there’s a half-cocked Antoine de Saint-Exupéry reference in his subsequently being labeled “the little pilot,” that makes as much sense as anything in this ragtag, near-apocalyptic world.) Spots is nowhere to be found, but a motley pack of gossiping mutts — voiced with varying degrees of dolefulness by Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Bob Balaban — take the kid under their collective paw, as a haphazard search leads to an even more addled escape mission. But it’s the wary outlier of the group, gruff habitual stray Chief (a perfectly hangdog Bryan Cranston) who improbably emerges as boy’s best friend.
Synopsized in this fashion, “Isle of Dogs” sounds practically Pixar-esque as a traditional quest narrative, but the licked-clean bones of its plot don’t really do justice to what a genuinely strange, circuitous film this is, its magic largely contained in its lulls and digressive vignettes. Anderson is happy to place the hijinks on pause for a long, mutually seductive nighttime dialogue between Chief and high-pedigree bitch Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) — a scene that plays like “Lady and the Tramp” as redrafted by Raymond Chandler — and the film is all the more beguiling for such curiosities.
It’s when it sticks to the story, oddly, that “Isle of Dogs” is likelier to bark up the wrong tree. Though the film’s human drama is plainly intended to be chillier than its more vibrant canine goings-on, any time spent away from the eponymous isle passes rather too slowly. A scattily joined subplot centered on American exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig), who persuades her more compliant Japanese peers to rise up in protest against Kobayashi’s dictatorship, skates a little too close to white-savior territory in a film that some will already have placed on thin ice for its ornate cherry-blossom-picking of Japanese culture and iconography. As with Pixar’s recent “Coco,” however, there’s subjective leeway in the argument over appreciation versus appropriation.
Either way, Anderson’s Japanophilia is intricately expressed, as present in the film’s unexpected, tensely deliberate pacing — in which the director’s professed debt to Kurosawa doesn’t feel as far-fetched as it sounds. It’s more blatant in Alexandre Desplat’s wonderfully sparse, louring score, which sounds like precisely nothing else the melodically inclined Frenchman has ever composed before — setting the whole film on edge, the soundtrack blends a steady tremble of Taiko drumming with, of all things, the occasional interpolation of Prokofiev’s “Troika.” “Why not?” appears to have been the guiding principle behind much of “Isle of Dogs,” and it serves the film well more often than not.
But it’s no surprise that Anderson is most sure-footed with his canine puppet ensemble: From the top dogs down to Tilda Swinton’s oracle pug — four words that might require explanation in any other filmmaker’s universe — every beast here is characterfully conceived, rendered with rich, tactile manginess, and observed with a loving dogoisseur’s eye for behavioral detail. The imaginative leap from puppet to pup is an easy one to take here: By the time the closing credits waggishly list a previously unheard Anjelica Huston as “Mute Poodle,” we’re inclined to take this lovably mad film at its word.