I wish somebody spoke his language: Isle of Dogs

Isle of Dogs (2018)

Wes Anderson combines different types of animation in an adorably quirky homage to Akira Kurosawa, even if he is not as successful in terms of substance

Isle of Dogs


Writ­ten and di­rect­ed by Wes An­der­son. Sto­ry by Wes An­der­son, Ro­man Cop­po­la, Ja­son Schwartz­man and Ku­nichi No­mu­ra. Star­ring Bryan Cranston, Ed­ward Nor­ton, Bob Bal­a­ban, Bill Mur­ray, Jeff Gold­blum, Koyu Rankin, Ku­nichi No­mu­ra, Aki­ra Takaya­ma, Gre­ta Ger­wig, Frances Mc­Dor­mand, Aki­ra Ito, Scar­lett Jo­hans­son, Har­vey Kei­t­el, F. Mur­ray Abra­ham, Yoko Ono, Til­da Swin­ton, Ken Watan­abe, Mari Nat­su­ki, Fish­er Stevens, Fish­er Stevens, Liev Schreiber, Court­ney B. Vance, Yo­jiro Noda, Frank Wood, Ro­man Cop­po­la, An­jel­i­ca Hus­ton and Kara Hay­ward.

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 char­ac­ters pop­ping up on the screen with par­en­thet­i­cal sub­ti­tles in Eng­lish, both in the cred­its and 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 in a white cir­cle.

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 is 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 too.

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.

Re­view orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished as part of the cov­er­age of the 68th Berlin In­ter­na­tion­al Film Fes­ti­val

Feb­ru­ary 16, 2018


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