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'Isle of Dogs' unmistakably Wes Anderson 

click to enlarge OUTCASTS: Wes Anderson's film about a pack of dogs trying to help a young boy recover his pet is his most surreal film to date.
  • OUTCASTS: Wes Anderson's film about a pack of dogs trying to help a young boy recover his pet is his most surreal film to date.

It's easy enough to spot a Wes Anderson movie, be it live or stop-motion. The sets are finely embroidered in fanciful colors and styles. The actors deliver their lines drolly, portioning out emotions in pinches rather than with scoops. The stories flirt with magical realism. And generally, Alexandre Desplat will write original music that will be nominated for an Oscar.

Something about Anderson's style — instantly recognizable, unerringly precise — turns off Academy voters; he has been nominated just once, and lost, for directing. Perhaps it is because he tends to dim his performers, or perhaps it's because his tone and plots lean twee. Either way, his work translates with surprising ease into stop-motion animation, with a recognizability that only Tim Burton, among his coevals, seems to match. In 2009, it was "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," a rich, wry animal crime drama. In 2018, it's "Isle of Dogs," by a slim margin the longest stop-motion movie in history, and likely Anderson's most political and surrealistic film to date. It also has to be considered among his most gorgeous, a fiercely competitive category indeed.

One reason: Everything has to be created from scratch in this miniature world, set in the fictional Japanese metropolis of Megasaki City. There, a generations-old feud between the ruling dynasty (which loves cats) and the city's many flu-stricken dogs has come to a dark end. The mayor decrees that all dogs will be excommunicated to an island of trash, starting with his own family dog, Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber). Months of deportations follow. Then one day a tight pack — voiced by Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban and Edward Norton — notice a small plane fall out of the sky. The little pilot, as they come to call him, turns out to be the 12-or-so-year-old ward of the mayor, come to try to track down his dog and get him back to the mainland.

Naturally, this being a Wes Anderson film, it all goes deeper: Scientists try to develop a serum only to have tragedy befall them; robot-drone dogs become tools of the state; student reporters and hackers are on the case of the whole tangle. Listen and you'll recognize other voices: Frances McDormand as a translator; Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham and Tilda Swinton as other dogs; Yoko Ono as a character named Yoko-ono; and Scarlett Johansson as a wayward show dog who captures the heart of Cranston's roguish stray. It's in a line of her dialogue that you can hear what makes the entire film so particular: The actress audibly smiles as she tries to convince the stray to help the little pilot, yet the miniature dog on-screen keeps her face expressionless. Anderson's dialogue lends itself to the deadpan, and it's only when someone hops those rails that you can see why his style translates so seamlessly into a realm populated by tiny puppet animals whose every microexpression has to be placed on it deliberately by other human hands.

The whole movie, in fact, is so tightly woven that to pull it apart into strands is virtually impossible. It skews to darker shades as our ragtag band of diseased and injured heroes traverse a land of garbage. It will enthrall you with every set, every visual detail (and, yep, with lush Japanese drumming, courtesy of Desplat). And, if you love a dog, or several dogs, it will have you celebrating the thoughts of your dog. The heroic little pilot is just one, after all, of so many good boys in this film.

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