Animation suits Wes Anderson’s style. Especially later-career Wes Anderson, as his compositions get more and more ornate and his blocking and camera moves get more specific, his cuckoo clock style has a way of turning the actors into cogs in a Rube Goldberg machine (and my God, does Wes Anderson ever enjoy machines). Which can make them seem a little stiff, even in comparison to the actors in his more loosely staged earlier work like Rushmore. The beauty of Isle of Dogs and its stop-motion animation is that Anderson can just stick the characters wherever he needs them. He doesn’t have to worry about making them seem stiff, they’re already stick figures. Freed from the responsibility of working with other humans in the room, he can do more of what he really wants, like build anachronistic punch-card computers and stage cutesy action setpieces on vaguely European gondola rides. It’s a winning formula.
In that sense, Isle of Dogs, a stop-motion comedy about the dogs of Megasaki (in Uni Prefecture) who are banished to Trash Island by the cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi, is a perfect fit for Anderson’s style, a series of elaborately staged, simplistically delivered dog jokes, all labeled with yellow text like an old almanac. The elaborate staging and slight subject matter work well together, like an extended animatic for a stylish children’s book — a work that doesn’t need to delve deeply into themes in order to be effective, or affecting. It’s more about rhythm and restraint than passion. (Tellingly, Isle of Dogs‘ human protagonist, Atari Kobayashi (voiced by Koyu Rankin), has a penchant for haiku.) Few other directors’ work feels so much like play. It’s childlike, in a good way. Precocious, with a sense of wonder towards the exotic (it’s the child-like wonder that makes Anderson’s Orientalism feel more curious and admiring than appropriative).
In another way, Isle of Dogs chafes a little under our rigid ideas of what constitutes a “feature film.” It feels like a full-length short — a clear concept, well-executed, a story that can be resolved without too much character evolution or soul-searching. And that’s fine! A lot of times, that’s exactly what we want in a movie: a fresh perspective with minimum commitment. Few directors are better at endings, at tying things up in a neat little bow like Anderson, and Isle of Dogs, like many of his movies, ends strongly enough that you’ll forgive a little narrative floundering in the middle section. He does a fine job making the film just long enough to be traditional feature length without anyone getting too bored. Still, would it really have been so bad if it was only 60 or 70 minutes?