Berlinale Review: Isle of Dogs (2018)

I mean, let’s just put it out there: everybody loves dogs. Or at least they should. Dogs are better than people, and we don’t even deserve them but are lucky enough they became part of our lives. Inventive director Wes Anderson, the same guy who brought foxes to life in “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”, is a wise man who accepts this reality, and his newest film illustrates that fairly well. With its world premiere taking place during this year’s edition of the Berlin International Film Festival, “Isle of Dogs“, the director’s second stop-and-motion animated film, is a delightful – even if eventually too far-fetched – homage to dogs, their relationship with humans, and the power of courage and resistance.

In a Japan that exists two decades from now, all dogs in fictitious Megasaki City, contaminated with a flu-like virus that makes them aggressive, have been sent to a distant garbage-dump island. “Whatever happened to men’s best friends?” There, dogs live in exile. Distant are their memories of canned food, favorite meals and loving relationships with their tutors. Survival is more important.

This “Mad-Max for Dogs” routine is interrupted by the arrival of a small aircraft and its pilot, 12-year old Atari Kobayashi (voiced by Koyu Rankin), a boy in search of his bodyguard-dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). With a pack of new, and yet ever-loyal friends, an adventure begins. The tales of self-discovery and exploration that are so common in Anderson’s filmography, take yet another shape and form.

As a director, one of Anderson’s most admired traits is his ability to create his own worlds – bits and pieces of our own and yet not quite – design its parts, and bring them to life in a way that completely absorbs viewers in. Think of “Grand Budapest Hotel”, his previous feature, a painting-like achievement where even the smallest of details come together to tell his tale. Here, with Japanese culture in the forefront, there’s plenty to look at: production designers Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod are scrupulous in what becomes a part of this world. Their work ensures this universe is round and believable, even if only as an outsider’s image. Heck, people even speak their native languages, and that beautifully plays with audience’s assumptions and expectations of what they imagine the other to be like.

As is the case with most adventure films, the story in itself is not particularly groundbreaking. Expect a journey with multiple displays of group spirit, selflessness, and courage. Luckily, the film never loses its quick-wit, nor its oftentimes dry and fast humor, which makes it equally suitable for younger and older audiences.

A corrupt mayor (Kunichi Nomura), also a legal guardian to young Atari, uses extermination of dogs as a political platform to remain in power, spreading fear and claiming to be in control, all the while his high-cabinet members appear on TV holding and stroking cats. The government structure is text-book-antidemocratic: media acts as a vehicle for misinformation, scientists and opposition are attacked, and its main members publicly demoralized or exterminated altogether. For a moment I thought they were portraying my own Brazil. Anyway, back to Anderson’s Japan…

But even if the plot isn’t the most imaginative possible, nor the film proposes deeper reflection over its themes, its stellar cast ensures more than just a basic, fun experience for most viewers. Bryan Cranston is perfect as the rebellious and non-conformist Chief, and Scarlett Johansson once again gives good nuance to the glamorous and intelligent Nutmeg. Heck, we even have Tilda Swinton as Oracle, a wise and mysterious pug we all wish we had in our lives, helping us make better and more thoughtful decisions. There’s more: Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel – are you still there? – Greta Gerwig, Jeff Goldblum, F. Murray Abraham, and even Yoko Ono contribute to the story, in precise and remarkable ways, with sharp and easily identifiable characteristics.

As smooth as such a story could be, it doesn’t come without a few bumps in the road. Gerwig’s character, a vibrant exchange student who designs the plan to uncover the government’s conspiracy, rings too close to the “white-savior” type, and the film’s final moments, even in a universe where dogs communicate and work together to fight evil humans and their controlling technology, can still seem too far-fetched, stretched up to the end in search of its own closure.

That being said, there’s no question Anderson created, yet again, a world so easily identifiable as his. If one could think about mistaking it for a traditional animation studio feature, the director certainly left his own marks, either in suggestive and seductive – yet quirky – dialogue, or through the edgy and hard-paced tempo the film that sometimes assumes, aided by what could be yet another accolade-winning music score by Alexandre Desplat. And oh, did I say it has a much better fleet scene than Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk”? Well, just saying…

(Film still courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

Director: Wes Anderson (also known for “Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Moonrise Kingdom”)

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