'Isle of Dogs': Film Review | Berlin 2018

Four paws up.

Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Greta Gerwig are among the voice cast of Wes Anderson's stop-motion animated adventure about a boy and his faithful pet out to stop a canine genocide.

Wes Anderson took his fascination for obsessively detailed hermetic worlds, meticulous visual compositions, oddball characters and idiosyncratic storytelling quirks to a heightened level in 2009 with his delightful stop-motion animated adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox. Returning to the form, the director delivers an even wilder, more distinctive experience with Isle of Dogs, the thoroughly captivating tale of a 12-year-old Japanese boy's quest to rescue his beloved pet, and indeed an entire outcast canine population, from the genocidal scheme of a crooked mayoral regime. The Fox Searchlight March release has cult potential stamped all over it.

The setting is the fictional Japanese Megasaki City, 20 years in the future, and Anderson acknowledges one of his key influences as the urban crime and corruption thrillers of Akira Kurosawa, in particular the early 1960s features The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low. Nods to Kurosawa are present throughout, notably in the decision to make Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by co-story writer Kunichi Nomura) a dead-ringer for the Seven Samurai director's longtime screen muse Toshiro Mifune, his glowering countenance staring out from billboards and news broadcasts. There are also suggestions of the formal elegance of Yasujiro Ozu, the accelerating peril of vintage Japanese monster movies and the frenetic dust-ups of anime.

But the film's sophisticated cine-literacy is more of an added bonus for aficionados than an essential part of the enjoyment of this twisty original tale — scripted by Anderson from a story he developed with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Nomura. Despite the specificity of its setting, Isle of Dogs is very much a part of Anderson's eccentric universe; its vibrantly inventive visuals and the refusal of its resourceful heroes to bend to an oppressive authority in many ways recall The Grand Budapest Hotel. In fact, in its rebellious stand against corrupt leaders manipulating the truth in order to spread fear and persecute minorities, the movie has a political undercurrent that feels quite timely.

It opens with an amusing prologue that concludes with a droll haiku, using a faux-historical mural to show how the wild dogs that roamed the Japanese archipelago 10 centuries ago had been domesticated over time to serve as household pets. But the cat-loving Kobayashi Dynasty sets off a citywide alarm about an outbreak of "snout fever," or dog flu, ordering that all mutts be quarantined on Trash Island before the disease contaminates humans. The shift from the dense futuristic city to the disposal site, piled high with compacted cubes of garbage (shades of WALL-E) and crawling with rats, is just one of many dazzling visual transitions.

Ignoring the assurances of his rival, Science Party candidate Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito), that his team is on the verge of isolating a dog flu vaccine, Kobayashi sets an example to the city by being the first to crate and ship the mayoral household bodyguard dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), into island exile. "Whatever happened to man's best friend?" asks Megasaki’s official news translator (Frances McDormand), her plaintive tone conveying an increasing inability to remain emotionally detached.

Employing animated maps and blueprints like a master draftsman, Anderson bounces back and forth between the political hub and the refugee island, where packs of dogs now ravaged with illness scavenge for scraps to stay alive. Among them is a rag-tag band nominally headed by Rex (Edward Norton), who cherishes memories of afternoons by the fireside. He's flanked by former baseball mascot Boss (Bill Murray), one-time Doggy Chop pet food spokespooch King (Bob Balaban) and gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum).

Hovering on the fringes is Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray who questions his snarling instincts in moments of existential introspection: "I'm not a violent dog, I don't know why I bite." Chief feels an instant attraction to enigmatic former show dog Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), envying her pedigree: "You belong somewhere. You've got papers."

When a 12-year-old boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin) crash-lands on the island in a puddle-jumper, it emerges via flashback that he is the orphaned ward of his uncle, the Mayor, and he's come in search of his furry friend Spots. While Spots is initially presumed dead, rumors surface that he may have joined a pack of cannibal canines inhabiting an abandoned experimental plant at the far tip of the island. Undaunted by their lack of a common language (Atari speaks only Japanese while the dogs' barks are translated into English), the boy sets off with Rex and his gang to solve the mystery.

Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, the nefarious conspiracy plans of Kobayashi slowly come to light, in part due to the detective work of Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), an American foreign exchange student on the school newspaper. And in an effort to thwart the growing threat of public exposure while he's up for re-election, Kobayashi and his goons unleash robotic attack dogs and drone warfare on Trash Island.

For those who choose to see this in conventional family-film terms, Anderson might perhaps be accused of overplotting, layering complication upon complication in a story that's basically a classic hero's journey, with multiple plucky sidekicks. But the unique charm of Isle of Dogs is its bottomless vault of curios, its sly humor, playful graphic inserts and dexterous narrative detours. Anderson breaks the story down into various parts with chapter headings ("The Little Pilot," "The Search for Spots," "The Rendez-Vous," "Atari's Lantern") creating a literary structure that binds the discursive story together.

The work of production designers Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod cannot be overpraised, especially in the more elaborate set-pieces like a trash-processing plant where Rex and pals get caught on a hellish ride. A culinary interlude detailing the preparation of a poisoned bento box is transfixing. Just the wealth of visual detail in every frame alone will make the film reward repeat viewings. It was a lovely touch, too, to present news and security camera footage in hand-drawn 2D animation. And the puppets, under the design supervision of Andy Gent, are creations of exceptional rough-edged beauty, from the delicate, doll-like features of human characters like Atari and Tracy to the scruffy individuality of the canine contingent, its core members often shot in striking pan-focus compositions right out of a samurai epic.

One of the key elements keeping the action propulsive is a score by Alexandre Desplat unlike anything he's done before. Virtually every moment is underlaid with music, from pounding taiko drums to gorgeous percussive themes with gentle woodwind elements, its unmistakably Japanese flavor lending a soulful emotional charge to the themes of loyalty, friendship and honor. The gentle romance between Chief and Nutmeg, the outcome of Spots and the revelation for Chief of the unconditional love between a boy and his dog make the story quite touching.

Courtney B. Vance provides mellifluous linking narration, while standouts among the starry voice team include Cranston, Norton, Johansson, McDormand and Gerwig. Yoko Ono makes a brief, funny appearance as Watanabe's devoted research assistant (drolly named Yoko Ono). And there are witty spells with Trash Island's wise elders, Jupiter, voiced with sonorous authority by F. Murray Abraham; and mystical pug Oracle (Tilda Swinton), whose powers of divination consist entirely of developments observed on TV. The presence of so many members of Anderson's unofficial repertory acting company only reinforces the sense of a lovingly hand-crafted project from a true maverick screen storyteller.

Production companies: Indian Paintbrush, American Empirical Pictures
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Mari Natsuki, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Liev Schreiber, Courtney B. Vance
Director-screenwriter: Wes Anderson
Story: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura
Producers: Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, Jeremy Dawson
Executive producers: Christopher Fisser, Henning Molfenter, Charlie Woebcken
Animation director: Mark Waring
Director of photography: Tristan Oliver
Production designers: Adam Stockhausen, Paul Harrod
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Editors: Andrew Weisblum, Ralph Foster, Edward Bursch
Head of puppets department: Andy Gent
Animation producer: Simon Quinn
Animation supervisor: Tobias Fouracre
Senior visual effects supervisor: Tim Ledbury
Casting: Douglas Aibel, Kunichi Nomura
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)

Rated PG-13, 101 minutes