Short Takes: Isle of Dogs

(Wes Anderson, USA, Fox Searchlight, Opening March 23)

Wes Anderson is hardly the first director you’d think of to captain a dystopian futurist allegory of xenophobia featuring feral, emaciated dogs. But the meticulous auteur’s second foray into stop-motion animation becomes a compendium of his characteristic forms, flourishes, and frustrations.

Exiled to Trash Island after an outbreak of Canine Flu, the dogs of Japan scrounge for sustenance and fight bitterly among themselves. Their nobler impulses are reawakened by the arrival of a 12-year-old boy seeking his beloved Spots, the first dog to be deported—by his uncle, the powerful mayor Kobayashi. Anderson’s screenplay, a rare solo effort, intersperses the search for Spots with flashbacks to the high-level corruption and thinly veiled nationalism that prompted this topical mass expulsion of the underclass.

Isle of Dogs is easily Anderson’s most political venture, a cautionary tale of demagoguery and scapegoating. The compositions are as lovingly crafted as any in the director’s canon, with the heroes’ bristly, unwashed coats popping off the screen, and less-dry-than-usual humor deriving from the personalities of the diverse voice cast (notably Jeff Goldblum as a rumormongering mutt). But Anderson’s tendency to crowd his canvas with characters who register as jokes more than dramatis personae (three lines for scientist “Yoko Ono-San,” voiced by… you guessed it) is a problem here, especially in the back half, which is both too plotty and too tidy. Still, it’s a juicy bone for animation connoisseurs and canine enthusiasts—who should say the title three times fast.