In the fall of 1998, director Wes Anderson took the film critic Pauline Kael to see his upcoming release, “Rushmore,” hoping to write about their conversation for The New York Times. Kael, a famously wordy critic, responded to Anderson’s arch, wistful coming-of-age comedy with a brief summation.
She said: “I don’t know what you’ve got here, Wes.”
That is how many critics, myself included, have responded to Anderson’s more recent output. “Rushmore” and its follow-up, “The Royal Tenenbaums,” were generation-defining films, but Anderson’s subsequent works — beginning with the loopy soap-opera “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and culminating with 2012’s tween romance “Moonrise Kingdom” — resemble the imaginary narratives of a lone child before a dollhouse: charming, innocent and pure, but meaningful mostly to their creator. “Isle of Dogs,” Anderson’s latest, probably would have stumped Kael completely.
A stop-motion homage to Japanese cinema, “Isle of Dogs” is a future-set story about a boy, Atari (Koyu Rankin), whose faithful dog, Spots (the voice of Liev Schreiber), is exiled from Megasaki City as part of an anti-dog purge by Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura). Atari’s search for Spots leads him to Trash Island, a dump of windswept grandeur (cue the references to Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai”). There, he meets a pack of abandoned dogs led by the irascible Chief (Bryan Cranston) and the amiable Rex (Edward Norton), who along with several others — played by Bill Murray, Bob Balaban and Jeff Goldblum — banter and bicker amusingly no matter what kind of scrape they’re in. A romance emerges in the form of Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), a hard-luck show dog.
Written by Anderson with longtime collaborator Jason Schwartzman and others, “Isle of Dogs” is often funny and sometimes moving. It’s also aesthetically pleasing, from its dazzling use of color to Alexandre Desplat’s percussive score. Somehow, though, this free-associative combination of satire, action-adventure, heart-tugging and quirky humor doesn’t hit you in the gut or the heart, the way a story about a boy and his dog should.
There have been objections to Anderson, a white American filmmaker, making a film about Japan. If anything, “Isle of Dogs” seems slightly over-enamored of Japanese culture. Anderson is clearly smitten by the panoramas of Kurosawa, the paintings of Hokusai and even the making of sushi (illustrated in one of the film’s most delightful sequences). For Anderson, Japan is yet another lovely little dollhouse to play in.