A certain brand of whimsy — wry, goldenrod-tinted, fastidiously retro — is to Wes Anderson as spots are to a Dalmatian, innate and unmistakable. But with Isle, his second foray into stop-motion animation after 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, the 48-year-old auteur proves that even the drollest dog can learn new tricks, plumbing fresh depths of feeling and tenderhearted eccentricity.
After a brief prologue set “before the age of obedience,” the narrative jumps to the fictional future Japanese metropolis of Megasaki City, where man’s best friend has suddenly become canis non grata. Under the pretext of public health, the city’s granite-jawed, cat-stroking Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by co-writer Kunichi Nomura) banishes all dogs to Trash Island, a desolate atoll where coddled house pets (Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum) and purebreds (Scarlett Johansson’s silk-eared siren Nutmeg) mingle in equal misery with scrapyard mutts like the grizzled, ornery Chief (Bryan Cranston).
But when the mayor’s rebellious 12-year-old nephew and ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin), crash-lands a stolen biplane on the island in search of his own unjustly exiled hound, the ragged pack begins to hold out hope of real rescue. (An early note informs viewers that the people will be heard mostly in their original Japanese, while the animals’ barks are translated directly into English.)
Nearly all of Anderson’s signatures are here: the visual wit, the vintage soundtrack, the wise narrator (Courtney B. Vance), the illustrious band of weirdos (Murray, Goldblum, Tilda Swinton). And he adds new names to the mix who seem like they should have been there all along, like Yoko Ono’s sad scientist and Greta Gerwig’s radicalized American exchange student, Tracy. (Wes-world habitué Anjelica Huston even gets a wry nod in the credits as “Mute Poodle.”)
The movie’s darker allegory of persecution and internment isn’t hard to miss, though, and the dogs themselves, with their tactile tufts of fur and Buster Keaton eyes, have an endearing, complicated humanity. In these cotton-wooled times, Isle may be deemed too bleak for children, and a warning wouldn’t be entirely wrong; the story, for all its snowglobe-diorama enchantment, doesn’t swerve away from the more ragged realities of poisoned hearts and mangled paws. But the bittersweet singularity of its telling speaks to every creature, big and small. A–