Berlinale 2018: Wes Anderson's 'Isle of Dogs' is Stop-Motion Excellence
by Alex Billington
February 16, 2018
Dogs rule! There's really nothing else like a Wes Anderson-directed stop-motion animated film. That is especially true for Isle of Dogs, the latest one-of-a-kind stop-motion animated creation from the mind of this master filmmaker. Isle of Dogs is a very Japanese film, set entirely in a retro-future Japan where dogs have been outlawed by cat-loving government villains. It's endlessly imaginative, unlike anything I've ever seen before, with incredible detail in every single frame. So much so, that it's almost hard to keep up with all of it - I want to pause and study each frame/set/scene before continuing. The film is amusing and funky, sometimes a bit clunky, with plenty of Anderson's typical quirky humor and wacky characters galore. It's so funky that some may not connect, but there's an undeniable charm that definitely won me over by the end.
Isle of Dogs introduces us to a weird, alternate version of Japan where dog lovers have been overruled by cat lovers, and thanks to an outbreak of a doggie disease, the government has convinced the masses to agree to send off their dogs to a trash island nearby. So away they go, every last one. As cliche as it might seem, the film has a not-so-subtle dogs-vs-cats undercurrent that plays into the story throughout. The actual story is about a 12-year-old boy name Atari, who goes off on his own to find his dog Spots, the very first dog to be sent to the island. He clumsily embarks on an adventure to find and bring Spots home, encountering a pack of wild dogs living on the island, who try to help him but sometimes end up taking him in circles. There's a few other threads involving the government and all kinds of fun, nefarious, and oddball characters as well.
Each of the individual pieces in Isle of Dogs are stunning in their own way. All of the character design, the set design, the cinematography, the voices, everything is so wonderfully creative and captivating. However, the film's biggest problem is bringing all of this together in a coherent way. It's structured to be a very Japanese film - there are chapters and title cards entirely in Japanese, along with other cuts to flashbacks and asides to explain parts of the story. There's so much going on that sometimes it loses its charm just to spend a few minutes explaining something else. There's a dog loving (or as they say in the film: "pro-dog") charm to the film that keeps it afloat, and makes it so endearing. At its core, Isle of Dogs is about a boy who just wants his doggie back. There's no other explanation needed. Dogs are man's best friend, we need them.
More than anything, Isle of Dogs is worthy of being studied and analyzed in every way. I'm looking forward to getting a copy to watch at home so I can pause and go through each scene one-by-one, and examine some of the hilarious pieces of Japanese art recreated with dogs in them. (I wish I could have this art printed and hanging on my walls.) I'm also impressed by how Wes Anderson made this film with such an intense amount of Japanese influence and culture. Half of the dialogue, which is spoke in Japanese by native actors, is never translated. All of the title cards are in Japanese, and it's packed with an immeasurable amount of detail in all of the sets. I wouldn't be surprised if there's all kinds of cultural references that only Japanese viewers will pick up on. As a lover of Japanese culture, I was honestly overwhelmed with everything packed in this.
The question on everyone's mind is: how does this compare to Wes Anderson's other stop-motion animated film Fantastic Mr. Fox? Well, they're such different films, it's hard to say. After only this first viewing of Isle of Dogs, I'm still partial to Fantastic Mr. Fox, but only slightly. And only because I've seen it so many times. I have a feeling that each time I rewatch Isle of Dogs I will get deeper and deeper into it, finding more to appreciate. There's so much to take in on the first viewing, it's all about just seeing what it's about. But as a dog lover myself, I know there's so much to love here, but it doesn't have that emotional cry-your-eyes out moment. It doesn't flow as smoothly as Mr. Fox, but Isle of Dogs has so much to offer in its own unique way. If you love cats maybe you should stay away, then again, maybe this will convert you into a dog lover, too.
Alex's Berlinale 2018 Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing