Like a dog with a ball.
Wes Anderson's talent for creating whimsical film worlds is unique--no one is better than him at building intricate, candy-coated dioramas masquerading as movie sets and plots. Where many directors strive to make movies that seem as realistic as possible, Anderson bends reality until it drips in slow motion with deep cut '70s alt rock b-sides and non-sequitur one-liners that get right to the heart. Isle of Dogs is one of his most Anderson-y films yet, but somehow, it's also more focused, driven, and pared down than anything the director has done before.
Wes Anderson movies rub some people the wrong way. Everything's too cute, and the dialogue often sounds unlike how people actually talk. When Bill Murray's Steve Zissou spends several minutes giving the viewer a tour of his boat in 2004's The Life Aquatic--on an incredibly intricate set of a full-sized boat split lengthwise in half--it can feel overly self-referential. Are these characters aware they're in a movie? Does this advance the plot, or is it no more than showboating?
I get the complaints. But to me, Wes Anderson movies are great because of all that--the feeling that it's all make believe, that these characters are play-acting, grandstanding, aware of their own limited existences and determined to make the most of the scant time for which they have our attention. They're all so deeply flawed, in high contrast with these otherwise perfect movies, where the musical, thematic, and visual cues all swirl together deftly at each emotional climax. (Take a minute to read about the sheer amount of work that went into building Isle of Dogs' world, and you'll understand.)
There's usually a lot going on in a Wes Anderson movie, but that's where Isle of Dogs differs. What B-plots briefly flit into existence are quickly folded back into the main storyline: a boy looking for his dog on Trash Island.
Unsurprisingly, Isle of Dogs boasts an impressive cast, including Edward Norton, Billy Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, and Yoko Ono. But there are two who really matter: Bryan Cranston, who voices the rough (ruff), intimidating stray dog Chief, and Koyu Rankin, the boy Atari. They're the main characters, and everyone else exists in service to their story and their character development. That's not a bad thing; it's just unusual for a Wes Anderson movie.
This is Anderson's second stop motion animation film, after 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox. That alone sets it somewhat apart from the rest of his movies. But in Isle of Dogs he also foregoes some of the stylistic quirks he usually relies so heavily on, from the frequently deployed slow-mo (check out the excellent supercut below) to the normally Kinks/David Bowie/Rolling Stones heavy soundtracks.
The dominating audio in Dogs is the sound of Japanese Taiko drums and the musical score that composer Alexandre Desplat built around them (no matter what the official soundtrack might have you believe). The movie opens and ends on stop-motion musicians beating these drums with impressively intricate animation--another signature Anderson diorama set piece, complete with diegetic sound, but one that drives the movie forward rather than providing interlude or distraction.
That's how Isle of Dogs moves: It charges forward toward its conclusion like a dog chasing a ball, and when it gets there you might experience emotional whiplash. The climax comes and goes before you can fully process it, and it's all denouement from there. At just over 100 minutes, Isle of Dogs could have used a little more time spent on some of its side characters and subplots, and a little more at the end. But there's a silver lining there: Isle of Dogs is Wes Anderson's most focused film ever, and you'll want to go through it again.