Whether or not you like Isle of Dogs will greatly depend on your love for dogs. And Japanese cinema. And stop-motion animation. And witty vocalizations. And quirk. And Wes Anderson. And movies. Wait, did I say dogs? Nonetheless, it was check, check, check, check, check, check and check for me. Isle of Dogs is the best movie of 2018 thus far. Two paws up.
There's a wide chasm in the current state of animated features. On one side, there's Anna, Elsa (Frozen) and all of their Disney sisterhood; and on the other side of the canyon there are naughty animated flicks like Anomalisa (2015), which featured R-rated puppet sex (I'm still trying to shake that one). Despite the far-reaching gap between G-rated Disney fare and adults-only cartoons, there have been very few animated films for discerning moviegoers. Only the Wallace and Gromit franchise or Fantastic Mr. Fox (also created by Anderson) come to mind. Anderson knows a thing or two about fantastic. With inspiration from the Rankin/Bass Productions of the 1960s (Rudolph, Frosty, Santa, et al.) and classic Japanese filmmakers such as Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon), Anderson's Isle of Dogs is a love letter to childlike fantasy and a boundless blend of soul and sass.
Another of Anderson's great gifts is attracting top dogs to voice his animated films. The Isle of Dogs cast includes Bill Murray, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Jeff Goldblum, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Anjelica Huston, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham and Yoko Ono.
The story takes place in and near the fictional Japanese metropolis of Megasaki City, where a fiendish mayor plots to banish all dogs to an island garbage dump, and further schemes to have the dogs destroyed. There's only one person who can stop such a dastardly deed: a 12-year-old boy named Atari who sets out to find his own pooch, Spots (Schreiber), also banished to the canine penal colony. Once on the island, Atari teams up with a pack of alpha male dogs named Boss (Murray), Chief (Cranston), Duke (Goldblum) and Rex (Norton). There's also a mysterious female show dog named Nutmeg (Johansson). Meanwhile back at Megasaki City, an American exchange student (Gerwig) leads an underground revolution in an attempt to overthrow the maniacal mayor. Anderson's screenplay has plenty of narrative detours; it zigs and zags, but ultimately moves with the skilled precision of a border collie.
Now, a word or two about some of the controversy casting a shadow across Isle of Dogs. A handful of film critics have accused the film of racial stereotyping or cultural appropriation in its portrayal of the Japanese characters. Yes, some of them are bad, just as some of them are good, like characters in any other film. I respectfully disagree with the criticism, particularly considering that Anderson has such great appreciation and knowledge of the rich legacy of Japanese cinema; the mayor in Isle of Dogs is actually modeled after some of filmdom's most iconic characters from classic Kurosawa films. I see it as a tribute.
In years past, I have likened Anderson's previous films (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom) to giant boxes of chocolates, not unlike old-timey Whitman Samplers. Isle of Dogs is just as delicious. This time, just imagine the chocolates are shaped like dog bones.