The new stop-motion animation from writer-director Wes Anderson is set in a futuristic Japan where people still use '70s-style Dymo Label Makers. It contains a 45-second sequence depicting sushi preparation that took six months to create and plays a minimal role in the plot.
Those two details tell you most of what you need to know about Isle of Dogs. It's a visual marvel, suggestive of a children's picture book by a canine- and Kurosawa-loving author brought to life using the rough, stylized animation technique of a bygone era. Every frame invites study, fascination and nostalgia. Story-wise, though, it's a bit of a shaggy dog.
That's not to say that cowriters Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura haven't also meticulously constructed their plot, which is rife with framing devices and self-consciously labeled flashbacks. In an elaborate prologue, we learn that the story's villain, Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Nomura), is descended from a dynasty of cat-venerating, dog-hating warriors. Having attained an iron grip over the metropolis of Megasaki City, he issues a decree exiling all the city's dogs to forsaken Trash Island, using outbreaks of "dog flu" and "snout fever" as pretexts.
Among those deprived of their canine companions is the mayor's own 12-year-old nephew (Koyu Rankin). Six months later, he steals a plane and crash-lands on the island, where he enlists the help of a ragtag band of former pets to help him find his beloved Spots.
These scrappy dogs are voiced by Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Edward Norton and Bryan Cranston. But hearing the dream cast banter in dog form isn't as much fun as one might hope, and only Cranston's character, a surly stray named Chief ("I bite," he warns), has much of a personality. His, too, is the film's only real character arc, as he grudgingly assists the boy and learns the joys of eating dog biscuits and playing fetch.
Anderson has chosen to present the human characters' dialogue without subtitles, whether they speak English or Japanese, while all the dogs speak colloquial English. It's a bold stylistic decision that forces us to focus on the film's rich visual cues. Yet Anderson undercuts it by giving the pivotal role of the city's most ardent pro-dog activist to a foreign-exchange student named Tracy (Greta Gerwig), who speaks American English. The effect is to make her, rather than our own eyes, the story's interpreter, alienating us from the Japanese characters and rendering the film both more accessible and less interesting.
But story is almost incidental to the self-sufficient world Anderson and his animation team have created, mixing and matching influences as far-flung as 19th-century Edo prints, kabuki theater, midcentury American animated holiday specials and Looney Tunes. The dogs huddle in a shelter made of luminous multicolored sake bottles. A deserted amusement park looms over a vast industrial wasteland. In the aforementioned sushi sequence, living creatures become food-as-art with blinding speed. Dust clouds and waves, rendered with cotton and plastic wrap, look like you could reach out and touch them.
In every way, Isle of Dogs is a celebration of craftsmanship, the antithesis of the sleek, modern style of computer animation. Because it's an Anderson movie, it also has an alienated character who needs to rediscover a sense of home. But, unlike the auteur's previous animation, the funny and moving Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs is finally more memorable as art object than as comment on the human (or canine) condition. There's a lot of bric-a-brac, but not much bite.