The final Oscar-nominated film for Best Animated Picture that I want to look at this month is 2018's 'Isle of Dogs'. This one was nominated alongside Pixar's 'Incredibles 2', Disney's 'Ralph Breaks the Internet', and another under-the-radar anime called 'Mirai'. Everything lost to 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse', which I never saw coming, but loved. Truth be told, I thought this might take it, based on the style and the director's name alone. It was awesome seeing Spidey win, but this had to be a very close second that year - even with Disney and Pixar in the running.
Taking place in the fictional city of Megasaki, Japan, the story opens up with an outbreak of canine influenza, risking a contagious effect towards humans. As a result, Mayor Kenji Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) ratifies a decree, banishing all dogs to Trash Island. Kobayashi's opponent, Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito), mentions that he is very close in finding a cure for the canine disease, but despite this, the plan goes through, banishing the first dog. The dog in question is Spots (Liev Schreiber); the once bodyguard of a 12-year-old orphan named Atari Kobayashi, who is the mayor's nephew and ward.
Six months later, the island is full of dogs, earning it the nickname "Isle of Dogs". Here, we meet our five lead pooches, Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and Boss (Bill Murray). One day, Atari hijacks a plane, flies it to the island, crash-lands, and meets these dogs. Soon enough, they somewhat all understand each other, and it's revealed that Atari has come to the island in search of Spots. The dogs help Atari on his search, they face certain dangers and obstacles along the way, and much of the story involves Chief's character development as opposed to the boy in search of his dog. Being a life-long stray, Chief learns a few things about what it means to have a human in his life.
Meanwhile, Professor Watanabe continues to develop a cure in the hopes of bringing man's best friend back around. However, some suspect a conspiracy to get rid of all of the dogs, namely American exchange student, Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), a member of a pro-dog activist group, wanting to expose the possibly corrupt mayor. Let's just say with the way things are in the world right now considering disease and various conspiracies, it might not be the best thing to check out for the time being. On the other hand, I have to say it's still a pretty damn good movie that gets every emotion going - especially if you're an animal lover of any kind (especially dogs).
There's a lot to like about this movie, starting with this particular Wes Anderson style of stop-motion animation (the other being 'Fantastic Mr. Fox'). I appreciate its overall simplicity, but things like individual hairs moving in the "wind" are really cool details other stop motion movies never seem to utilize. The style gives the film an almost wild feeling, which makes all the more sense, considering what it's depicting. Meanwhile, the humans of the movie look a lot like plastic action figures, which may or may not mean something. There's far less detail to the human figures, almost as if the film pushes the dogs to the forefront stylistically as well as story-wise.
Another detail that makes this one a bit of a gem is the voice talent. Other than who I've mentioned, we also have an ex show-dog named Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), and two sort of seer dogs, Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) and Oracle (Tilda Swinton) who sees "visions" through the TV, allowing her to predict things like the weather. We also have head "cannibal" dog, Gondo (Harvey Keitel) and the interpreter (Frances McDormand) who narrates much of the story through news reels Last but not least, and perhaps most interesting, Yoko Ono playing assistant scientist Yoko Ono. She doesn't pop up until near the end, so there would be a potential spoiler in her character's purpose.
On top of the voice talent, Anderson also made the decision to have the Japanese actors here speak in their native tongue, without translating much of it to English. Meanwhile, the dogs speak perfect English. It's interesting that it feels somewhat like we're viewing the "mainland" story as an outsider, unable to understand the language completely. However, when it comes to the dogs, we understand them completely. It makes me wonder if it was our of respect for Japanese culture, to be more in touch with our animal friends, or a little bit of both. Either way, the film was a joy to watch, being both fascinating in its style and execution, and funny when it comes to that Anderson sense of humor.