Wes Anderson’s films have always hewed closely to the intertwined strands of the fantastical and the storybook. But this essential impulse, evident in his trademark aesthetic, has never been more apparent than in his latest effort, Isle of Dogs. The opening is only the first sign: a prologue told by a monk that closely parallels the events to come. This time, however, the setting is markedly different from his heretofore Western-centric films: Japan, sometime in the future, specifically in the fictional city of Megasaki. After the mayor (Kunichi Nomura, who also co-conceived the story) orders the exile of all dogs to the neighboring isle of Trash Island on the grounds of an infectious “dog flu”, his distant nephew and ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) flies to the island in an attempt to rescue his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). Upon landing, he is joined by a gang of dogs, whose most prominent member is Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray fiercely opposed to domestication. What follows is in essence a men-on-a-mission film, interwoven with student-led investigations into the possible governmental suppression of a cure for the virus.
Isle of Dogs thrives upon this fairly straightforward premise, stringing together a fleet series of encounters by imbuing with a sense of weight, either comedic or emotional, through the careful building of a constellation of distinctive characters. Anderson’s films have long had an off-kilter balance between arcs and individual moments, and this movie is largely tilted towards the latter: to name just one of the most piercing examples, the first flashback (of many), which shows Spots and Atari’s first meeting, has enough emotional heft to sustain a full half of a lesser film. Ironically, despite the enormous cast, the heart of the film ultimately feels as if it belongs to two or three figures (Atari, Chief, and Spots), but the ways in which they affect those around them consistently prove to be thrilling and, often, more than a little moving.