Berlinale 2018 – The Films. Day 1: Isle of Dogs

(Berlin.) Here we go again: Berlinale 2018 has started.
Like every year – well: like last year – you may follow my musings on the day’s premieres here, limited to films in and in-yet-out-of competition. Will the joys prevail, or the suffering?
Remember: Last year’s Golden Bear laureate, and undoubtedly the best film in competition, Ildiko Enyedi’s On Body and Soul, currently is nominated for an Academy Award in the Foreign Picture category – let’s wish them best of luck!

Day One, 15 February
There are numerous theories about the origins of the name Isle of Dogs for an area in the East of London, bounded on three sides by one of the largest meanders in the River Thames. Some attribute it to an historic use, the island supposedly once housing the kennels of King Edward III., others to a corruption of “Isle of Ducks”, and still others to the name of an individual farmer or even Ben Johnson’s eponymous play that was lost shortly after its premiere in 1597, &ct. With a history of docks, the island today is home to the Canary Wharf business district as well as to the highest concentration of social housing in London. Nothing of this is in any way related to Wes Anderson’s Berlinale opener Isle of Dogs.
I confess that, once again, I came unprepared. I was not even sure who exactly is Wes Anderson. Only, that he’s not Craven, not Wes Craven. I’ve never seen any of his movies, except The Grand Budapest Hotel which I didn’t like. On my way to the festival grounds, I caught a glimpse of a missing dog poster on a streetlamp but decided against a closer look. Waiting in the audience, a better prepared journo explained, this was actually an ad for the very film we were about to see. Had not the film started then, I would have told her of an article I had read the night before on the internet, about a German shepherd who got lost in Southern Germany last August, and now has turned up wounded on the side of a Swiss motorway near Zurich (she's out of danger). I think this remarkable, but refuse to believe in another perfectly timed marketing coup.
However, Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is best described as “Antoine de Saint-Exupéry meets Wallace and Gromit”, the main character being a little boy who is constantly referred to as “the little pilot”, and the technique stop motion animation. Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas doesn’t look completely different, either. Yes, it’s animation, or cartoon, or whatever you like to call it, but aiming (also/mainly) at an adult audience. Video Games - platform, classical jump’n’runs - would be another valid association. That boy's name is "Atari"!
Set in the future Japanese megacity “Mega-Saké” (or something like that), Isle of Dogs tells in many languages, not all of which are continuously translated, except barking, the story of a cat-spiracy plotting to exile all four-legged people (well: dogs) to a trash (and not treasure) island. A boy to the rescue, and events unfold. A racy bitch (literally!) plays her part, too. It’s not exactly (Disney-)cute – in fact I felt the whole graphics rather cold, lacking soul, but others thought different – and the humour, let's say: it would have been great, had they somehow convinced 20th Century’s greatest canine expert among comic artists, Gary Larson (remember him?) to assist with the script. As it is, there are some laughs, and Anderson obviously knows his dogs, but occasionally you might miss something, a sniffing here, a gesture there, that would only make it more authentic.

The modern fairy tale is not necessarily a “festival film” – everybody thought this sounded cool, you could hear the expression everywhere, all day long – but still much above average for a big audience production.
Should you enjoy playing those games, there are lots of quotes and references waiting for discovery, from Star Wars to Snake Plissken, and even politics (that one black “stray” proudly stating, he’s “got papers”, yet in the end he’s actually blackfacing – no, can’t say that, he only needed a bath!). Oh yes, the evil cat lovers’ plan involves the replacement of dogs with robots, and here might be a meta-thought lurking: Animation seeks to replace human actors, but human animators/stop motion artists are still better than pure software (and Anderson’s favourite actors did the talking bits, from Bill Murray to Ed Norton).
It’s probably no coincidence, this film launches in a Chinese Year of the Dog – Happy New Year, everyone (and please: don’t eat people, don’t eat dogs. Same thing, really)! Wes Anderson must be hating those YouTube cat videos, too.
Prediction: See above: No festival film. But fine. Maybe a bit long.



Berlinale, 15-25 February 2018

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