You’ve never seen anything quite like “Isle of Dogs.”
Oh, you’ve seen all its elements.
A stop-motion animated film from director Wes Anderson, it is not wholly different from his other stop-motion effort, 2009’s highly enjoyable “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”
And over the years we’ve had countless animated films with heroic animal characters, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” among them.
But it is the huge influence of Japanese cinema on “Isle of Dogs” — the story is set in Japan 20 years from now — that helps make the movie feel so unusual.
At least partially an allegory about deportations and corruption in government, it ultimately is an odd dish cooked up by Anderson, director of excellent films (“The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Moonrise Kingdom”) and others that mostly frustrate (“The Darjeeling Limited” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”).
“Isle of Dogs” also is an incredibly flavorful and mostly successful dish.
The story — penned by Anderson but drawn up with the help of Roman Coppola, Kunichi Nomura and his “Rushmore” star, Jason Schwartzman — takes place in the Japanese Archipelago, where “canine saturation” has reached epidemic proportions and “Snout-Fever” rips through the city of Megasaki. As the “Dog-Flu” threatens to jump to the human population, government leader Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) orders the expulsion of all pooches, stray and domesticated, to a land full of garbage that its four-legged occupants will dub “Trash Island.”
Not everyone is happy the dogs have been sent away, and the 12-year-old ward of Kobayashi, Atari (Koyu Rankin), does something about it: He flies a small plane to Trash Island to find his beloved dog and bodyguard, Spots (Liev Schreiber), crashing upon arrival.
A pack of dogs led, more or less, by the plucky Rex (Edward Norton) decides to help “the little pilot,” as they call him. Also included in the pack are Boss (Bill Murray), former mascot to the Megasaki Dragons Little League baseball team; King (Bob Balaban), once the spokesdog for the Doggy Chop brand; the gossip-loving Duke (Jeff Goldblum); and Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray and the most-reluctant to help Atari.
Chief is very much against the concept of human masters.
However, he is nudged to do the right thing by a fetching former show dog, Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), whom he, in turn, nudges into showing him one of her former tricks. (She whirls around, telling him he has to imagine she’s also spinning a ball on her nose, which he easily does.)
Along the way, our heroes will encounter other interesting dogs, including Gondo (Harvey Keitel), the leader of a mysterious pack of aboriginal Trash Island dogs; and pals Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) and the mystical Oracle (Tilda Swinton). (The explanation for Oracle’s amazing visions of the future is absolutely delightful.)
“Isle of Dogs” has received some criticism for its use of Japanese culture to tell its story, with some questioning whether it was necessary. There are complaints, too, that the Japanese characters speak Japanese — their words conveyed by an interpreter (Frances McDormand), limited use of subtitles or left to us to determine based on the characters’ actions, with varying degrees of success — while the dogs speak English. This is given a fine-enough throw-away explanation via text in the movie’s opening moments. However, having the dogs speak English clearly is a choice to allow voice talent consisting of Anderson regulars and other notables, which also includes “Lady Bird” director Greta Gerwig as an American exchange student investigating the government for her school paper. (There is also a funny working in of Yoko Ono.)
It is true that the most-fleshed-out characters are English-speaking, from the dogs to Gerwig’s Tracy Walker. Most notably, Atari is given some personality, but not enough. That is a bit frustrating.
Still, “Isle of Dogs” feels largely like a love letter from Anderson and Co. to Japanese culture. In fact, the film’s press notes state it “may owe as much to the storytelling legacy of (prolific deceased Japanese filmmaker) Akira Kurosawa as the history of stop-motion animation.”
Speaking of the quirky animation of “Isle of Dogs,” it is terrific, representing an apparent leap since the making of “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”
The largely realistic designs of the canine characters are praiseworthy, too, helping them come to life on screen in a memorable way.
Anderson’s distinct brand of humor is alive and well in “Isle of Dogs” — Chief, for instance, stops an important monologue to remove a tick from one of his pals — so his legion of devotees are likely to lap it up.
But while it can be cute, the PG-13-rated affair probably isn’t for a very young audience. Considering references to politically relevant concepts such as executive orders, adults will get the most from “Isle of Dogs.”
There is much to like about “Isle of Dogs,” even if at just over 90 minutes the film does start to wear out its welcome in its final stretch.
Scrape away the Japanese influence, the big-name voice talent — “Breaking Bad” star Cranston, is very good, by the way, and Norton is solid — metaphors and stop-motion wizardly, and you’re left with a tribute to man’s best friend.
Even if we have seen that before, it’s still a treat.
‘Isle of Dogs’
In theaters: April 6.
Runtime: 1 hour, 34 minutes.Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent images.
Stars (of four): 3.