WASHINGTON — In between such live-action gems as “Rushmore” (1998), “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014), Wes Anderson has shown a fascination with stop-motion animation since the delightful “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009).
This weekend, Anderson returns to the throwback medium in “Isle of Dogs,” a film that’s catnip for Anderson fans and amusing for most adults, even if toddlers aren’t in on the joke.
Set in the dystopian future of Japan, an outbreak of canine flu allows a cat-loving tyrannical government to exile every dog to a quarantined island. Missing his pooch, a courageous young boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin) embarks on a mission to rescue his four-legged friend Spots (Liev Schreiber) with the help of the isle’s other junkyard dogs: Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and King (Bob Balaban).
By now, Anderson can recruit whoever he wants to star in his Indian Paintbrush productions. Thus, part of the fun of “Isle of Dogs” is playing “name that voice” from a roster of A-listers: Greta Gerwig, Liev Scheiber, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono and Ken Watanabe.
Of course, the standouts are the ragtag pack of dogs, led by Edward Norton as the voice of reason. Jeff Goldblum hilariously gossips by repeating unsubstantiated rumors at every turn, Bill Murray chimes in as the aloof mascot of a Japanese baseball team, and Bryan Cranston steals the show as the street-smart stray dog trying to overcome the scars of his loner past.
On the periphery, Scarlett Johansson makes a memorable yet underutilized appearance as the sultry pooch Nutmeg; Tilda Swinton predicts the future as the all-knowing Oracle; Courtney B. Vance narrates the journey with his distinct voice; and Frances McDormand translates as a propaganda mouthpiece for Mayor Kobayashi, voiced by Kunichi Nomura.
Nomura co-writes the script with Anderson and his consistent cohorts Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, who allow the dogs to speak in English, while the humans speak in the “wah wah” stylings of Charlie Brown. Along the way, they weave in the social commentary of contamination fears (i.e. the Fukushima meltdown), a convenient excuse for the corrupt mayor to clamp down via press secretaries spreading disinformation on state-run television.
More than any of these underlying themes, the main goal of any stop-motion film is the visual presentation, which is rendered in magnificent detail here. On a micro level, every single dog hair blows believably in the wind. On a macro level, the overall world-building is fully realized, sculpting an exile island scrapheap that resembles the vast wastelands of “WALL-E” (2008).
Penetrating this landscape is Anderson’s probing camera, moving in his signature style of locked-off pans, tilts and dollies. Rather than free-flowing Steadicams or shaky cinema-verite, Anderson’s camera moves on an X-Y axis, the cinematic version of Frogger or chess. Like the best of auteurs, you know it’s an Anderson film from the start, as the camera tilts down from a tent roof to witness Kobayashi’s speech, the type of style that opened the Berlin Film Festival.
This approach can be somewhat alienating to mainstream audiences, keeping viewers at a distance to his carefully-crafted, jewel-box dollhouses (i.e. Kubrick). Thus, “Isle of Dogs” is more for the “twee” ones than the “wee” ones, playing out like a big inside joke to Anderson’s devoted niche fan base, rather than a broadly accessible movie for parents to bring their kids.
At our particular screening, the toddlers next to me kept asking their mom why things were happening. “I’ll explain it to you after,” she said with an undeniable grin. Indeed, much of the material is amusing to adults, featuring the black comedy of a dog’s ear being bitten off, a sushi chef chopping up sea creatures, a surgeon performing a graphic kidney operation, and several references to cannibalism. It’s a far cry from “The Secret Life of Pets.”
If you want Asian-themed stop-motion for the entire family, “Kubo and the Two Strings” (2016) is far more accessible. If, however, you want a quirky date night where you can chuckle at off-the-wall jokes because they remind you of that lovable fuzzball waiting for you at home, this flick is for you. For all its intentionally bizarre elements, an underlying affection remains for our four-legged friends with the dialogue: “Whatever happened to man’s best friend?”