WWes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs—slated for a June 22 theatrical release in India— is so unusual it’s almost a bonus to find that it’s also warm, funny and clever. The characters are likeable. The story’s exciting. The central conflict is about big ideas: animal rights, cat-loving tyrants, rigged elections, chemical conspiracies, dogs, love and truth.
Known for quirky films ranging from The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) to The Darjeeling Limited (2007), in Isle of Dogs Anderson uses stop-motion animation to tell a story about anti-canine villainy set 20 years in the future, in Japan and partly in Japanese. It’s a crowded narrative, full of texture and odd delights such as the mannerisms of Japanese newscasters and the scurrying of background rats.
When canine flu, or “snout-fever” hits the great city of Megasaki, mayor Kobayashi banishes its dogs to Trash Island— even Spots, the guard-dog belonging to his orphaned 12-year-old nephew, Atari.
The narrative style is Extreme Fast-Forward with frequent title cards to aid comprehension. Spots, a shaggy white terriermix with blue eyes and a pink nose, voiced by Liev Schreiber, is dumped on the island in a tiny locked cage. Shortly thereafter, we see his skeletal remains.
Cut to: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), four dogs from good homes, for whom life on Trash Island is approaching hopelessness. Their leader is the maverick Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray. His black coat is a metaphor for his angry, resentful character. Cut to: the sudden appearance, in a “Junior-Turbo Prop”, of Atari, searching for his beloved Spots. Meanwhile! Back in Megasaki, scientist Professor Watanabe has a cure for canine flu. Alas, Kobayashi has him eliminated before the cure can be distributed.
But wait! Tracy Walker, a plucky American exchange student, suspects that the disease is part of a dastardly plot to exterminate all dogs. With the help of Watanabe’s assistant Yoko Ono (herself!), she exposes the plot and helps get the cure released. The story is greatly augmented by smart sound design and countless visual treats such as the robot dogs, the trash-compacting factory and the cartoony depiction of fight scenes: a cloud of flying paws and claws. The animation is superb. It took two years to complete. Online streaming videos show the process in detail. Small models of each character are moved a fraction, photographed, then moved another fraction.
“The heart of a dog is a bottomless thing,” says Tilda Swinton, who voices the pug Oracle, in a press interview. The same can be said of this movie. A clue? Say the title out loud and you’ll hear the words,
“I love dogs.”