Marooning a pack of dogs on a dystopian Japanese island, the auteurs new animation is an inspiringly detailed and surprisingly rough-edged treat
Its well known that for Wes Anderson, the world is one big toy box. The prodigious American auteur proved that with his last feature, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which turned its human cast into comic puppets placed in a gorgeously crafted train-set universe. Now he proves it again if anything, more extravagantly with Isle of Dogs, an animation which, like its predecessor, opens the Berlin film festival in scintillating style.
Anderson has tried his hand at stop-motion animation before with the Roald Dahl adaptation Fantastic Mr Fox, but this new talking-animal entertainment is considerably more sophisticated and ambitious. Its set in a near-future Japan, where Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura, one of the films co-writers), the corrupt mayor of fictional city Megasaki, has taken draconian measures to curb the spread of various canine diseases, including the dreaded snout fever. He orders all Megasakis dogs to be exiled to a bleak island, essentially a huge offshore trashpile.
Life there looks hopeless for its exiles until they get a visit from Kobayashis intrepid 12-year-old ward Atari (Koyu Rankin), in search of his beloved, long-lost Spots. A band of mutts led by battle-scarred stray Chief (Bryan Cranston) help Atari on his mission, which involves exploring the scarier parts of the island, a mix of industrial wasteland and abandoned funfair, with fully functioning mechanised parts. Meanwhile, a pro-dog student group including moppet-like American visitor Tracy (Greta Gerwig) are rising up against Kobayashi, with the help of research scientist Yoko Ono (voiced by Yoko Ono).
Visually and thematically, Isle of Dogs is steeped in contemporary Japanese pop culture and futuristic iconography, but it also draws on traditional influences not least in its witty allusions to Hokusai and other classic art. The result could have come across as shameless cultural tourism, but the film suggests real immersion in Japanese culture and cinema, with Akira Kurosawas epics an avowed model. Anderson also plays his linguistic hand subtly and wittily, leaving the Japanese dialogue largely untranslated rather than cater too obviously to the western audience.
Meanwhile, the dogs dialogue is performed in English by assorted western stars, including Anderson alumni Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton, along with Jeff Goldblum as the gossip-loving Duke. Scarlett Johansson also voices Nutmeg, a former show dog whos tougher than her silky fur suggests. She is Chiefs opposite number in a tentative Lady and the Tramp courtship, but their banter has a hardboiled edge of Bogart and Bacall.