First-day coverage of the 68th Berlin International Film Festival with a review of Wes Anderson’s stop motion animation Isle of Dogs

Isle of Dogs 

68th Berlin International Film Festival

Fans of Wes An­der­son will find plen­ty to en­joy in Isle of Dogs, his sec­ond stop mo­tion an­i­ma­tion since the de­li­cious Fan­tas­tic Mr. Fox (2009). Anderson’s trade­mark style is all here: the track­ing shots, the lim­it­ed col­or palette punc­tu­at­ed by in­tense red, elab­o­rate sets full of de­tails, and lots of sym­met­ric shots usu­al­ly with some­one in the very mid­dle of the frame star­ing straight into the cam­era. But his sto­ry­telling quirk­i­ness is all the more adorable now than usu­al as he com­bines dif­fer­ent types of an­i­ma­tion and makes this a clear homage to Aki­ra Kuro­sawa — yet you may won­der if his am­bi­tions are just as im­pres­sive in terms of substance.

Anderson’s style is un­mis­tak­able, and he even be­gins his film with a hu­mor­ous an­nounce­ment to let us know that hu­mans will be speak­ing in their char­ac­ter­is­tic “sounds” and dogs will have their lan­guage trans­lat­ed to Eng­lish. The sto­ry takes place in Japan 20 years in the fu­ture, and An­der­son in­verts the roles by mak­ing us fol­low what the dogs are say­ing but not the Japan­ese hu­mans (un­less they speak Eng­lish, of course). You know this is a gen­uine Wes An­der­son movie when you see Japan­ese writ­ing char­ac­ters pop­ping up on the screen with par­en­thet­i­cal sub­ti­tles in Eng­lish, be in the cred­its or to de­scribe ac­tions and his­tor­i­cal passages.

The first an­i­mat­ed film to open the Berli­nale, Isle of Dogs sur­pris­es not only with its stop mo­tion but also the cre­ative way it uses 2D draw­ings and graf­fi­ti on the wall in dif­fer­ent con­texts as well (like car­toons on TV mon­i­tors). The dogs look in­cred­i­ble with their breeds, per­son­al­i­ties, voic­es (my fa­vorites be­ing Bryan Cranston and Har­vey Kei­t­el), and eye col­ors that some­times match the back­ground — and we can see their hair flick­er­ing in the wind too and a lot of emo­tion in their wa­ter-filled eyes. Some an­i­mat­ed el­e­ments are even more amus­ing, like dog fights that turn into a car­toon­ish cloud ball, or a dog’s imag­i­na­tion ap­pear­ing over his head in­side a white balloon.

When the dogs be­come con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed with a “ca­nine flu” in this dystopi­an Japan, the hu­mans ship them off (via ca­ble car!) to a re­mote trash is­land that looks stun­ning with its ar­chi­tec­tur­al garbage (and one of my fa­vorite sets is a col­or­ful shel­ter made of bot­tles). In fact, the pro­duc­tion de­sign nev­er ceas­es to im­press with its pow­er plants, pipelines and pago­das, while the beau­ty lies in the nu­mer­ous de­light­ful de­tails, such as a col­or­ful pat­tern cre­at­ed by flasks con­tain­ing liq­uids of dif­fer­ent col­ors on a lab­o­ra­to­ry shelf. The warm, fa­ble-like cin­e­matog­ra­phy is per­fect in the way it com­ple­ments and high­lights all that is shown.

In the is­land, we fol­low stray dog Chief (Cranston) and ex-pets Rex (Ed­ward Nor­ton), Boss (Bill Mur­ray), Duke (Jeff Gold­blum) and King (Bob Bal­a­ban), who see their lives take a turn when a boy called Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) — nephew of May­or Kobayashi (Ku­nichi No­mu­ra), the man re­spon­si­ble for ex­il­ing the dogs — shows up to res­cue his ca­nine best friend Spots, “Dog Zero” of the epi­dem­ic. Chief, who re­fus­es to be a pet, sees him­self in a per­son­al dilem­ma when he be­gins to de­vel­op an un­ex­pect­ed con­nec­tion with Atari af­ter the dogs de­cide to help the boy find Spots and es­cape the Japan­ese au­thor­i­ties who come to bring him back.

While clear­ly hav­ing a lot of fun with quirky nar­ra­tive el­e­ments such as a Wasabi poi­son, a ro­bot snif­fer dog with dig­i­tal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, a si­mul­ta­ne­ous trans­la­tor de­vice, and even a cameo by Yoko Ono, An­der­son seems to be a bit lost, though, with a wast­ed for­eign ex­change stu­dent, Tra­cy (Gre­ta Ger­wig), who doesn’t have that much to do un­til the end of the film and could have been voiced by any­one (it’s not like Gerwig’s per­sona adds to the char­ac­ter, af­ter all). In fact, it’s ob­vi­ous that Tra­cy is only Amer­i­can so that we can see peo­ple speak­ing in Eng­lish with her (since the Japan­ese is most­ly not sub­ti­tled), even though she does speak Japanese.

But my main prob­lem with Isle of Dogs is that An­der­son doesn’t ful­ly ex­plore the pos­si­bil­i­ties of his premise. Let’s face it, he has no in­ten­tion of mak­ing this a po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary, no mat­ter how it may seem like it. Not that he should, but the re­sult is a lot more harm­less and un­re­mark­able than it de­served to be, es­pe­cial­ly as the film ends up stat­ing that ba­si­cal­ly every dog’s dream is to be owned and loved as a pet by hu­mans, which com­plete­ly be­trays the very idea of rev­o­lu­tion and equal­i­ty. Still, the movie is pret­ty adorable as it is.


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