The double-whammy of a reactor meltdown and a volcanic eruption have left Trash Island unfit for human habitation. There, sneezing, starving mongrels fight over rotten scraps amid abandoned theme parks and rusted-out power plants. Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray who's used to scrounging for his supper, encounters a pack of fallen pets struggling to adapt to life in the wild. "I've seen cats with more balls than you dogs," he spits.
Voicing the pampered pups are the Wes Anderson Players: Rex (Edward Norton); baseball team mascot Boss (Bill Murray), Puppy Chop Puppy Chow spokesdog King (Bob Balaban) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), for whom gossip is the one comfort that exile to a radioactive garbage dump can't take away.
The dogs' stop-motion fights, charmingly rendered in "dust clouds" that are in fact wads of cotton, draw stop-motion blood, which is perhaps why this profanity-free doggy cartoon carries a PG-13 rating. It's not for little kids, who may be entranced by the visuals — stop-motion has an analog character and dimensionality that even the best computer animation can't replicate — while finding the film's conspiracy plot baffling.
Nine features and 22 years into his career, Anderson's pungent cocktail of childlike wonder and grown-up ennui no longer feels as jarring as it once did. His sensibility arrived fully formed with 1996's Bottle Rocket, and by 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou — which used stop-motion to depict its exotic specimens of marine life — some critics were accusing him of being less an artist than a walking assemblage of tics. "In 12 years he'll be eleven-and-a-half," Cate Blanchett's character says at The Life Aquatic's climax, looking down at her pregnant belly. "That was my favorite age," Bill Murray's Steve replies. The line finds an echo in Anderson's new film, when Nutmeg, a former show dog voiced by Scarlett Johansson, tells Chief that he should stick his flea-bitten neck out for young Atari because "he's a 12-year-old boy. Dogs love those."
It's true: Anderson is obsessed with the transition from late boyhood to young manhood, and that obsession has been a barrier-to-entry for some. His prior opus, 2014's The Grand Budapest Hotel, brought a lot of skeptics around, eventually scoring him an Oscar nomination for Best Director and another for Best Picture. His only other fully stop-motion feature, 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox, dropped us into a world of wild animals under mortal threat from humans, even as George Clooney's Mr. Fox struggled to master the feral impulses that kept putting his family and his community at risk. Like every Anderson movie regardless of the age (or species) of its protagonist, it was a story about how painful it is to grow up.
Atari, the preteen hero of Dogs, is already virtuous and honorable when the story begins. It's Chief and Spots, primarily, who're forced to grow. And these remarkable puppets, their bulbous eyes frequently spilling over with emotion, have no difficulty stoking our empathy.
As is often the case with Anderson's work, the movie's formalism is itself a refined pleasure, especially with its approach to language. Courtney B. Vance's stentorian voice-over is in English, and the dogs speak English, but all the Japanese human characters speak Japanese and are performed by Japanese actors. (Rankin, who was all of eight years old when he recorded his dialogue, is half-Japanese, born in Canada to a Japanese mother.) All onscreen text, including the credits and the judiciously deployed subtitles, is shown in English and Japanese, and when Anderson translates the Japanese speech, he uses a number of ingenious methods, including an onscreen interpreter voiced by Frances McDormand. Equally inventive is the way that all video feeds seen in this stop-motion world display hand-drawn animation.