2018 Berlin Film Festival Review: ‘Isle of Dogs’
Synopsis: In Japan, after a wave of dog-flu hits the city’s dogs, they are all exiled to trash island. Meanwhile, one of the dog’s owners decides to rescue his now exiled dog and goes on a perilous journey to get him back.
In one of his most ambitious films to date, Wes Anderson once again employs stop-motion animation to tell a story that’s deeply connected to the current political climate in the United States – and one that will resonate with foreign and domestic audiences alike.
Set in Japan, the film centers on a 12-year-old boy, Atari, whose dog has been exiled, along with thousands of other dogs to a once-industrial, now abandoned island. There, the exiled dogs live with no possibilities of returning to their masters, and are left there to suffer from shortage of food – and hope. The exile comes as a result of a dictatorship rule that’s governing the country and killing any attempt of resistance or opposition. The country’s leader happens to be Atari’s uncle, who had vowed to take care of the boy after a tragic accident that took the lives of his parents. But when dog flu sweeps the city, dogs are banished and considered as a national hygienic threat. With fear mongering in full swing, no one – but a small group of student activists – dares to speak up or oppose the decree to exile all dogs and end all sorts of human-dog compassion.
Wes Anderson is clearly not interested in making a cute film about a boy’s quest to find his loyal dog. In fact, ISLE OF DOGS is one of his darkest, most complex work with several touching moments. Very few animated films are able to fully realize their characters in the way Anderson does here. Throughout the film, the viewer is able to engage with fully developed characters that are not caricatures nor simplistic storytelling devices aimed to tell a Disney-style tale of happy endings. Particularly engaging and superbly delivered is Bryan Cranston’s ‘Chief,’ a stray dog that refuses to be submissive to human masters, and perhaps has more resistance and pride than the human inhabitants of the city that chose to abandon their pets.
Instead, the film is clearly a metaphor of what’s happening in America and around the world right now. While the island in the film – and the film’s title – can be seen as one that’s referring to a place where the dogs are left to die slowly, it is essentially a place for underdogs, outcasts and minorities. Perhaps wanting to comment on the current political climate, the film makes a compelling case of the impact of fear mongering and how dictatorship far extends decrees and laws – it’s rather the dictatorship of the word. By building fear and using blatant propaganda, the city entirely turns passive and dismissive of these outcasts that are supposed to be man’s best friend. And by that, this one tyrant leader is able to have millions of complicit citizens who forgot these creatures that they long lived with. Fear blinds and makes one forget, and the film is a testament to that. And a time when a memory of an aggressive and contested American elections is still fresh, tactics of fear mongering, racism and turning minorities – of race, nationality or orientation – into monsters and stereotypes continue to exist and are used as powerful political tools that win elections, sway votes and turns people into ghosts of their once proactive selves.
Several narratives and stylistic decisions made by Anderson amplify the film’s powerful impact – stop motion is perfect here as it gives a realistic and imaginative depiction of a world not far from our reality while enabling us to go on a journey with creatures and characters that are as realized as any human character. Anderson chooses to leave many chunks of dialogue in Japanese and subtitles are not thrown all over the screen, but only when necessary, leaving it up to viewers to get the nuance and understand the emotions of the characters.
The film does no lack Anderson’s playful, quirky touch, but it’s darker than his previous efforts and is able to balance multiple tones to craft a timely and urgent story.
In one of the film’s final moments, Atari recites a haiku that says: ‘Who are We? And Who Do We Want To Be?” And that’s precisely what ISLE OF DOGS is about. Before we move forward with plans of what we want to become, perhaps it’s always useful to look back and understand the foundations in which we believe. Once we open our hearts and minds to those we had banished on mental islands and tried to forget they existed even though they’re still sharing our lives, streets and memories, only then will be able to cross the other side. Would there a need for islands then?
Verdict: Wes Anderson crafts magnificent, timely and epic stop-motion animated film that sends an urgent message about compassion, tolerance and fighting fear mongering.
ISLE OF DOGS comes out in the US on March 23, 2018 from Fox Searchlight.
[author title=”Mina Takla” image=”http://”]Mina Takla is a foreign correspondent for AwardsWatch and the co-founder of The Syndicate, an online news agency that offers original content services to several film brands including Empire Magazine’s Middle East edition and the Dubai Film Festival. Takla has attended, covered and written from over 10 film festivals online including the Dubai International Film Festival, Abu Dhabi Film Festival, Cannes, Venice and Annecy Film Festivals. He has been following the Oscar race since 2000 with accurate, office-pool winning predictions year after year. He writes monthly in Empire Arabia, the Arabic version of the world’s top cinema magazine and conducts press junkets with Hollywood stars in the UK and the US. He holds a Master’s degree in Strategic Marketing from Australia’s Wollongong University and is currently based in Dubai, UAE.[/author]