Review: Prize pup ‘Isle of Dogs’ can’t stop showing off

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
Immaculately detailed to the point of suffocation, Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” is the director at his most precious, writes Graham.

Immaculately detailed to the point of suffocation, Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” is the director at his most precious. From “Rushmore” to “The Royal Tenenbaums” to “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Anderson’s signature exactitude has been both his greatest strength and his creative crutch, and the precision of his camera movements and the clean symmetry of his framing has become its own form of storytelling.

Here it sucks the air out everything else and leaves no room to breathe.

Make no mistake, there is plenty to admire here in the director’s second stop motion film, following 2009’s delightful, warm-hearted “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” There is rich detail in his painstaking design and the childlike whimsy of his creation. “Isle of Dogs” is like experiencing the imagination of a child prodigy given limitless tools to carry out his vision.

But the soul of the story is missing, traded for twee design elements. Where “Fox” was a little rough around the edges and all the more enchanting for it, “Dogs” is technically marvelous, but cool to the touch.

Anderson sets this dystopian fantasy in a future Japan, where a dog flu spreads through the pooch community and man’s best friend is banished to a wasteland dubbed Trash Island. On this island, a gang of dogs — voiced by Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray and other A-list voice talents — scavenge the landscape for scraps. They team up with Atari (Koyu Rankin), a boy looking for his lost dog, who was one of the first subjects banished to the island. Meanwhile, on the mainland, scientists search for a cure for the dog flu, and a student journalist (voiced by Greta Gerwig) investigates what she suspects is a government cover-up.

“Isle of Dogs” pays tribute to samurai films, with visual and structural cues from Akira Kurosawa, and its humor is deeply deadpan and wry. If “Fantastic Mr. Fox” was a cool, audience-friendly alternative to mass-market family fare, “Isle of Dogs” is a world or two away, programmed for film geeks and those already converted to Anderson’s eccentric tastes. If you expect a smarter, hipper version of “The Secret Life of Pets,” your head will be scrambled.

Anderson’s touches are gorgeous and at times magical; individual hairs on the dogs’ heads shift ever so slightly from frame to frame, giving the illusion of fluid movement, and when the dogs scrap — which is often — their skirmishes are rendered in clouds of puffy cotton balls. These visual elements would be better served in a story that didn’t seem so pleased with itself, where they assisted the story rather than their showiness becoming the story. The characters, meanwhile, both dog and canine, don’t seem to have any sort of personality outside of Anderson’s own ticks and quirks.

“Isle of Dogs” toes the adorable-infuriating line: Adorable because it looks like the first-place winner in a child’s diorama contest, infuriating because it seems like that same child showing off and getting lost in the indulgences of his own work. Anderson’s projects have always had a meticulous quality to them, but “Isle of Dogs” is exacting to the point of alienation. Someone needs a leash.

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‘Isle of Dogs’


Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent images

Running time: 101 minutes