The world is trash, and Wes Anderson is currently enjoying the hottest streak of his career. These things, it turns out, are not unrelated. The worse things get, the more fantastical Anderson’s films become; the more fantastical Anderson’s films become, the better their style articulates his underlying sincerity. Disorder fuels his imagination, and the staggeringly well-crafted “Isle of Dogs” is nothing if not Anderson’s most imaginative film to date.
There’s a whiff of inevitability to that. Whether telling a story about a splintered New York dynasty or one about a faded European hotel where it used to be possible to find some faint glimmers of civilization in this barbaric slaughterhouse known as humanity, Anderson has always been attuned to the beauty of magical idylls, to the violence of losing them, and (most of all) to the fumblingly tragicomic process of building something better from the rubble. But when he started working with stop-motion, it was though he suddenly realized that he could splice his characters directly into the marrow of their stories.
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Although you can almost feel him inching closer to this epiphany towards the end of “The Life Aquatic,” it wasn’t until “Fantastic Mr. Fox” that Anderson really began to build universes from the ground up, seizing such divine control over every detail that his movies came to seem more like snow globes that he’d shake for 100 minutes at a time. Just like that, he could do whatever he wanted — the glass-domed sky was the limit. He no longer felt confined to sardonic comedies about self-destructive white dudes, not when he could make sardonic comedies about self-destructive white dudes in the ’30s. Or about two pre-teen kids who try to run away from home only to be stymied by the fact that they live on an island. Or about a bunch of wild animals.
So at a time when global warming and gun violence have become inescapable — a time when fascism and xenophobia are no longer abstract threats so much as Republican campaign promises — it’s no wonder that America’s fussiest auteur is operating at the peak of his powers. Which brings us back to “Isle of Dogs,” an animated adventure that takes place in a genuine world of rotting garbage.
“Isle of Dogs” is the work of an artist who’s howling into the same wind that’s currently blowing in all of our faces. This is a movie that literally asks us, “Who are we, and who do we want to be?” And since it’s a Wes Anderson movie, those questions are posed straight into the camera.
All the same, it takes a little while before the full scope of the story (credited to Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura) comes into view, and a little while longer before it starts to feel like Anderson isn’t just chasing his own tail, digging up tropes that he’s used more effectively in the past. The set-up is simple enough, even if the history behind it is kind of confused: Once upon a time, there was a war between dog people and cat people… or something. It doesn’t really matter, and you’ll be laughing too hard at the gorgeous ukiyo-e illustrations of samurai kittens to care (this film can’t match the savage comedic sting of “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” but the jokes come fast and furious, and Anderson’s visual wit has never been sharper). What matters is that 20 years from now, virtually every dog in Megasaki City is sick with a disease that’s threatening to cross the species threshold and infect the human population.
However, Mayor Kobayashi (Nomura) has a solution. Modeled after Toshiro Mifune’s towering performance in Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low” (the first of the film’s many nods to Japan’s most famous director), the villainous bureaucrat suggests relocating every single one of the dogs in Uni Prefecture to a place called Trash Island, starting with his own Short-Haired Oceanic Speckle-Eared Sport Hound, Spots. In case Courtney B. Vance’s droll narration wasn’t enough to acclimate you back into a Wes Anderson movie, the “Short-Haired Oceanic Speckle-Eared Sport Hound” ought to do to the trick.
Anyway, Kobayashi’s decision doesn’t sit well with his 12-year-old ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin). Orphaned in a bullet-train accident when he was only nine, Atari is as much of a stray dog as any of the four-legged friends he meets after crash-landing his prop plane on Trash Island. Spots is nowhere to be found, but a pack of mongrel pups reluctantly agree to help the “little pilot” in his search.
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