Animated pooches must heel to director’s quirky proclivities

Atari (Koyu Rankin) and canine friends seek his lost guard dog in Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs.

By Richard Ades

An orphaned boy risks his life to search for his missing dog. It sounds like the makings of a heart-warming, tear-jerking crowd-pleaser.

That is, unless the director is the relentlessly eccentric Wes Anderson. Then, you can expect a tale filled with the kind of quirky, jokey elements that leave fans metaphorically wagging their tails and others scratching their heads.

Isle of Dogs, like Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), is a stop-motion animation flick. This is its greatest strength, as the images are elaborate and eye-catching. But it may also be one of the film’s greatest weaknesses, as the faces of the painstakingly created characters show little emotion, making it hard to relate to their travails. Adding to the problem, their travails are constantly being interrupted by flashbacks and other digressions built into the script by Anderson and his team of co-writers.

The beginning moments lay out the fanciful back story: Centuries ago, the leader of Japan’s cat-loving Kobayashi clan was beheaded by a youthful member of a competing clan of dog lovers. Skipping ahead to the present-day city of Megasaki, we learn that Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) has ordered all dogs banished to the garbage-strewn Trash Island. He claims he wants to protect the populace from a plague of canine “snout fever,” but we suspect he’s really motivated by revenge and his family’s age-old hatred of dogs.

The first to make the involuntary trip is Spots (Liev Schrieber), guard dog of the mayor’s 12-year-old nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin). Others follow, and the island is soon teeming with a mixture of strays such as Chief (Bryan Cranston) and former pets such as the quartet of dogs (Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum and Bill Murray) who adopt him as their leader.

When Atari steals a plane and crash-lands it on the island while searching for his beloved Spots, the four ex-pets are eager to help the injured boy. Chief initially objects, having nothing but contempt for the bond between humans and dogs, but he eventually agrees to aid the boy in his dangerous quest.

Obviously, a raft of well-known actors contributed their voices to the animated tale, including Greta Gerwig as mud-raking exchange student Tracy Walker. It’s a sign of how little the individual characters stand out that only one actor is instantly recognizable: Scarlett Johansson as one-time show dog Nutmeg. For the most part, the characters come across as mere cogs in a busy plot that incorporates sumo wrestlers, conspiracies, robotic dogs and genocidal attacks.

Told in English and Japanese—spoken by the dogs and people, respectively—Isle of Dogs has its share of humor. Some of it is likely to be most appreciated by Anderson devotees, while other jokes are accessible to all. (All adults, that is, as the film is not really aimed at kids.) Along with the clever plot and amazing images, they help to make up for the stretches of film that fall short of their potential.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Isle of Dogs (PG-13) opened April 5 at the Drexel Theatre, Gateway Film Center, AMC Lennox Town Center 24 and Marcus Crossroads Cinema