As part of the European A-list film fest trifecta, the Berlin Film Festival – or Berlinale – can’t claim the kind of all-star roster of its counterpart in Cannes nor the sheer old-time glamor of Venice. It also typically bears the least relevance to the Oscar race – an obvious consequence of its being this early in the year. The relative lack of media attention can be a blessing, however, not just because the stress level of covering it is much lower, but you go see many of the films with the anticipation of discovering something completely new, of falling in love with cinema again in a way you never expected.
AND of course there’s always the occasional exception where big-time auteurs choose to unspool their latest work in the merciless continental chill of the German capital. For its 68th edition, the Berlinale opens with a loud woof as Wes Anderson’s starry stop-motion animated feature ISLE OF DOGS world premieres today in competition.
Anderson is no stranger to the fest, having brought THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL here to ecstatic acclaim that propelled the film all the way to Oscar glory nearly a full year later. Whether that same fate will repeat itself remains to be seen, but boy did he make another beautiful, touching and – yes – even politically charged movie.
Set 20 years in the future in Japan, ISLE OF DOGS depicts how, in reaction to a sudden outbreak of canine-related diseases, the mayor of a fictional metropolis stirs up public fear to pass a decree that banishes all dogs to the isolated Trash Island. Pups of all shapes and sizes, strays or domesticated, are dumped on a piece of wasteland festering with infections and a cold sense of abandonment, until 12-year-old Atari, adoptee of the mayor, sets out to find Spots, the dog previously assigned to him as a bodyguard with whom he has formed an unbreakable friendship.
The film is marked by Anderson’s signature quirky humor which arguably reaches new heights in this cross-cultural interspecies setting. From the very prologue (formally the story is divided into chapters like a modern-day fable), which illustrates on faux Japanese scrolls the mythological background about how dogs used to roam free on earth until war broke out with men that led to their enslavement, the curiosities keep coming and every frame is a compulsively crafted delight. The friendly reminder near the beginning about the use of languages, barks and translations in the film epitomizes such deadpan wit it qualifies as a classic Wes Anderson moment.
Speaking of languages, I find it absolutely tremendous that the Japanese characters in the film actually speak Japanese. Sure, most of it gets simultaneous translation (voiced by the dependably funny Frances McDormand) and the mutts conveniently all talk in English, and this may seem like an overall trivial thing to point out, BUT what a refreshing feeling to hear Asian characters in a Hollywood production communicate and emote in their mother tongue. Even when you temporarily don’t understand what’s being said, the delicate syllables that hit your eardrum in all their foreign glory enrich the acoustic landscape and emotional texture of a story supposedly taking place thousands of miles away.
As an adventure, I would say that ISLE OF DOGS slightly loses steam in the mid-section, when Atari and a pack of five dogs led by Chief (Bryan Cranston) try to locate Spots through various travails. The narrative resumes its dynamic bounce in the last half hour, however, as government conspiracies and political intrigue are revealed, sending the protagonists on another type of mission.
It’s here that the pressing relevance of Anderson’s talking-animal parable becomes unmistakable. Strongman politics fueled by fear mongering, mass apathy and the suppression of science, ring a bell? The moral outrage felt by the audience through a young exchange student (Greta Gerwig), though not vindicated in an adrenalin-rush kind of climatic ending, might be the clearest statement Anderson has made as a filmmaker about where we stand right now as a race. And amidst the jokes, spectacles and allegories, there’s something genuinely moving about the story. When a black-box recording is played later on revealing what Atari wanted to say to Spots as his last parting words, the magnitude of the affection and companionship that can be shared between man and animal hits you with devastating force.
As can be reasonably expected, the film looks and sounds incredible. The taiko-based score by Alexandre Desplat (does that guy ever take a break?) drums up notes of fun, mystique and pure excitement while remaining true to the Japanese culture. As for the meticulously, manically designed production, where does one even begin? The tunnel made out of deserted bottles that glows like a kaleidoscope? The futuristic lab that tests the anti-dog flu serum beaming with a thousand buttons and displays? It’s a wet dream for art directors even before you see a scene of assorted sashimi being prepared as imagined by Wes Anderson – a sight you never realized you needed until its marvelousness overwhelms your eyes.
People get carried away at film festivals – being THE FIRST to see anything (and I’m a DOWNSIZING apologist so take what I say with a grain of salt) – but ISLE OF DOGS really charmed me. It’s hilarious (wait ‘til you see Tilda Swinton as a tiny bulldog aka Oracle), it’s got heart and it touches on grave matters without ever preaching. A fantastic start for 10 days of, hopefully, dazzling, daring, daunting films. More to come.