Wes Anderson’s ‘Isle of Dogs’ is a howling good time

Joshua Lloyd, A&E Editor

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     The mad genius behind “Moonrise Kingdom” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is playing with dolls again. Wes Anderson’s first dive into stop-motion madness came in 2009 with the wonderfully whimsical “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

     Now, he’s taking us on a journey to futuristic Japan, where a hairy, scary saga of exclusion and backwards politics mirrors the everyday American chaos.

    

     Long story short, a boy goes looking for his best friend. Short story long, a boy steals a Junior Turbo-Prop airplane, flies to Trash Island in search of his bodyguard-dog and sparks a campaign to stop a tyrannical ruler’s dog-hating ways.

     That boy is twelve-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin, making his film debut in a big way), heir to the outrageously corrupt Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura, who pulled double-duty by writing a snappy script with Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman). It’s Kobayashi’s cat-loving administration that ships all the pooches of Megasaki City, owned and stray alike, to the polluted wasteland of Trash Island.

     While Kobayashi calls on his team to eradicate the canine population and curb the spread of a disease known as dog flu, others call BS. Exchange student Tracy Walker (the indomitable Greta Gerwig) condemns Kobayashi’s every move and goes into full conspiracy theory mode, something all too familiar for Millennials reading the latest tweets from the White House.

     True to Anderson’s roots, “Isle of Dogs” – or “I love dogs,” if you rework the pronunciation – centers on a dysfunctional family of sorts. Atari shacks up with a pack of Trash Island exiles on his quest to find his best buddy Spots (Liev Schreiber).

     There’s the endearing ex-pet Rex (Edward Norton), gossip-loving Duke (Jeff Goldblum), onetime doggy treat icon King (Bob Balaban), former baseball mascot Boss (Bill Murray) and fierce individualist Chief (Bryan Cranston).

     Suffice to say, Anderson’s movies tend to draw A-list talent. Atari and company cross paths with a mad cast of characters voiced by Yoko Ono, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe and RADWIMPS lead singer Yôjirô Noda.

     There are more than enough hilarious doggy antics to keep even seasoned cat-lovers entertained. But this is no “enchanted forest” Disney shtick. On Trash Island, only the toughest get to munch on those choice garbage deliveries. Watch the clip of Rex, Chief and the others tearing into a pack of rival dogs over a bag of assorted scraps and you’ll get the picture.

     Chief’s poignant scenes with trained show dog Nutmeg (given subtle dignity by Scarlett Johansson) are what really bring the film to life. It’s Nutmeg who convinces Chief to give humans a second chance, even if he bristles at the thought of lending Atari a helping paw. The guy’s a stray, after all. But from under all that dingy, matted fur, Cranston uncovers Chief’s wounded soul.

     The attention to set detail is flat-out astounding. If this bad boy doesn’t get an Oscar nod for Production Design or something of the sort, the Academy has wholly and truly gone to pot.

     There have been cries of cultural appropriation; others are praising Anderson’s depiction of Japanese life and shout-outs to local pop culture icons. Controversy aside, Anderson need feel no shame for “Isle of Dogs.”

     It’s one of those rare, deliciously artistic films that never loses track of itself. Only someone with his wild vision could use a bunch of furry figurines to tell a riveting tale of love and loyalty while smashing Trump-ish conceptions of racial paranoia.

     “Who are we?” Atari asks a crowd of Megasaki citizens at one of the movie’s climactic moments. With “Isle of Dogs,” Anderson begs the world to ask itself the same question.