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BERLIN 2018 Competition

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Review: Isle of Dogs


- BERLIN 2018: Wes Anderson's new film, boasting a star-studded voiceover cast and meticulous stop-motion animation, is largely another example of style over substance

Review: Isle of Dogs

Wes Anderson is one of the most unique filmmakers working today, whose singular style has almost become a sub-genre of its own. While his live-action record has its ups and downs, his one animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox [+see also:
making of
film profile
, represented the absolute artistic peak of his career. Now he is back with another stop-motion animation, Isle of Dogs [+see also:
film profile
, which world-premiered as the opening film of the Berlinale (15-25 February). But it is nowhere near its predecessor in terms of storytelling and emotional involvement, although it is certainly more ambitious in scope and more exotic in setting.

The eponymous island is in Japan, and the story is set 20 years in the future. Because of deadly diseases such as Dog Flu and Snout-Fever, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), of the city of Megasaki, has banished all dogs to Trash Island, now a desolate garbage dump after it was hit by a volcanic eruption, an earthquake and a tsunami.

A small aeroplane crashes on the island, piloted by 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin), the mayor's orphan-ward who flew there to look for his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). The four canines who find him and join him in his quest are all former pets: Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). They are initially wary of one stray that joins them, but accept him, and he takes on a lot of the initiative in the search for Spots, so they give him a similar moniker: Chief (Bryan Cranston). 

The dog world is populated by more canines in side roles, like classy Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) and the smart duo consisting of the wise Jupiter (F Murray Abraham) and the prophetic Oracle (Tilda Swinton), and the humans include heroes such as a scientist seeking a cure for Dog Flu (Akira Ito), his assistant Yoko Ono (herself), and an American exchange student and conspiracy theorist (Greta Gerwig). 

While the dogs in the film speak English, the humans speak Japanese, with the occasional voice-over help of sentimental translator Norman (Frances McDormand). This elegantly nudges the film straight into fable territory, but one soon begins to wonder: why hire all of these super-famous actors if their characters often do not have enough to do to even differentiate them properly?

We expect nothing less than a visual feast from Anderson, and he does not fail us. He has created an imaginative, incredibly detailed world that borrows from the rich Japanese tradition, from painting and theatre to Kurosawa and Ozu, and given the setting and the theme, there is a fitting ruggedness to the visuals, including ruins of factories and a temple amidst sand dunes, the dogs' unkempt fur, scars and torn ears, and cyberpunk-like additions, such as robot dogs and drones.

But for all its technical accomplishment and artistic mastery, Isle of Dogs has underdeveloped characters and storytelling that does not feel as urgent and dynamic, nor as emotionally involving, as one would expect from the setup. After all, it is a fable, and the basic emotion paired with the social metaphor should easily connect the audience to the film, inviting them to root for the (under)dogs with all their hearts. While the sheer artistic impression definitely justifies paying to see Isle of Dogs on the best available screen, it is likely that only Anderson's admittedly wide fan base will be fully sated.

Isle of Dogs is a co-production by Germany’s Studio Babelsberg, and US outfits American Empirical Pictures, Indian Paintbrush and Scott Rudin Productions. Its international sales are handled by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

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