“ISLE OF DOGS” — 3½ stars — Voices of Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum; PG-13 (thematic elements and some violent images); in general release
Reviews for Wes Anderson’s films tend to inspire a lot of the same adjectives: quirky, bittersweet, charming, even weird. In that sense, “Isle of Dogs” falls right in line, and longtime fans should be happy to see a familiar product.
“Isle of Dogs” marks Anderson’s second foray into animation, following 2009’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” This time, the story is about a 12-year-old Japanese boy who travels to an island full of marooned canines to find his lost dog.
The film takes place in a fictionalized Japan set 20 years in the future, even though, in true Anderson form, many of the visual cues evoke archaic technologies from decades past.
After an outbreak of something called “dog flu,” all the canine residents of the fictional Megasaki City have been shipped out to the same island the community has been using as a floating landfill. Here, roving bands of wild dogs compete for food and scraps in an environment that looks a little like the recent “Ready Player One,” which itself looked a little bit like the environment in “Wall-E.”
A blue-eyed, pink-nosed dog named Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber) was the island’s first official resident, and early in the film, preteen Atari (Koyu Rankin) arrives to rescue him. Atari is the distant nephew of Megasaki City Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), whose anti-dog politics suggests he is being manipulated by a cat-favoring conspiracy.
When Atari arrives, Spots is nowhere to be found and instead, the boy encounters one of the island’s various packs, which includes Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). The pack's de facto leader is Chief (Bryan Cranston), an angry stray who would just as soon eat the little boy than help him, but eventually the pack decides to set out with Atari on a quest to find Spots.
In the meantime, Mayor Kobayashi is finalizing plans to wipe out the dog population for good, and on the mainland, a foreign exchange student named Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) is investigating a conspiracy to cover up scientific breakthroughs that would cure the dogs.
The results are, yes, as quirky, bittersweet and charming as you would expect from an Anderson film, benefitting from cinematographer Tristan Oliver's skilled eye. The clever stop-motion animation is every bit as perfect as it was in “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” combining Anderson’s trademark symmetrical design with Japanese style cues to create a product that will have you scanning the screen constantly to pick up all its intricate detail.
You’ll also be playing a constant game of “who’s that familiar voice?” with a cast that also includes F. Murray Abraham, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, Frances McDormand and even Yoko Ono.
The story and themes are mining similar territory for Anderson, honing in on tender and intimate connections — here between a boy and his dog — in the midst of a heartless world. It probably won’t be remembered as Anderson’s finest effort, but it’s a lot of fun to watch, and dog lovers should appreciate this fascinating riff off the territory mined by “Secret Life of Pets.”
That being said, it’s not really a movie for kids. Not so much because the content is inappropriate — though it is a little more on the PG-13 side — but because the story, themes and quirkiness seem much more pointed toward an adult audience.
Still, animation fans of all ages will appreciate the pure creativity of the effort, and Anderson fans will feel right at home. “Isle of Dogs” is a great example of what happens when a little creativity cuts loose on the big screen.
“Isle of Dogs” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent images; running time: 101 minutes.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly suggested cinematographer Tristan Oliver was responsible for the film's stop-motion animation. Multiple people were responsible for the animation, according to IMDB.