Isle of Dogs — 7/10

ISLE OF DOGS (2018, Wes Anderson)

Unmistakably Anderson in every frame, a two-dimensional talking mobile from the juvenile mind of Max Fischer, the camera panning straight left and right, 90 degrees up and down, center-punched compositions, details overflowing. It doesn’t even move so much as it fizzes like a glass of Sprite, where you have to count every carbonated bubble before it pops into the air.

With anthropomorphized dogs getting most of the dialogue and characterizations, the film threatens to lose any grip on humanity, but with its imperialist villains who use their power to exile and poison those less fortunate (dogs=immigrants), some decent analogies can be made to tie this back to a real-world examination of moral decay. But Anderson doesn’t want to dwell on that regardless — this is an opportunity to play in a colorful sandbox fantasia of a movie, where he wants nary a note of music, word of narration, or second of reaction timing to be out of place.

And just when you think he’s leaning too far into hermetically sealed and mathematically perfect, there’s a warmth to the boy-and-his-dog relationship. Cranston’s voice performance is terrific here; he arcs his Chief to begin as gruff and heartless, monotonous and mean — then he gradually shifts to dynamic volumes, different pitches, and pauses that reveal the emotions underneath. It’s a full fledged three-dimensional character doomed to be underrated because Cranston’s face isn’t on screen. McDormand is also pretty great as the English translator of the Japanese news, using that “I’m reading this and trying to be impartial” voice, hurrying but not rushing. The same goes for Courtney B. Vance’s actual narrator, like he’s telling a serious bedtime story to his son. And it’s through these narrative voices (not the Japanese characters, who don’t get subtitles) we get to hear Anderson’s delightful lines like “It’s a distant uncle’s worst nightmare!”

I’m not sure it all ever congeals, though, to something deeper than its surface pleasures, which are plentiful. Anderson’s “flighty period” is his entire career, and occasionally you yearn for either some heavier boots anchoring his feet to the soil, or a little more muscle to the punches. His lightest films (though this one has plenty of dark layers — the entire premise is dystopian and there’s real danger for a lot of characters) like THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX and THE DARJEELING LIMITED almost lift off like a hot-air balloon, and they disappear into the sky by the time you leave the theater. I admire everything about how this guy crafts a movie in every single stage of production, but I think he’s capable of a 4-movement symphony one of these days, not another expertly produced twee pop song.

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