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Isle of Dogs, review – is it time Wes Anderson learned some new tricks?

The Royal Tenenbaums and Grand Budapest Hotel director chases a certain type of whimsical charm in his new animated adventure, but has that dog now had its day?

Wes Anderson’s new film sees the director return to the stop-motion technique of his 2009 film Fantastic Mr Fox. It is set in a sprawling retro-futuristic fictional Japanese city called Megasaki, switches with ease between English and unsubtitled Japanese, and features a cast of talking dogs voiced by Anderson regulars like Edward Norton and Bill Murray.

Isle of Dogs is as dextrous a piece of filmmaking as anything Anderson’s done: the animation is triumphantly inventive, the art direction typically immersive, and the storyline – a rich confection that sees all dogs in Megasaki exiled to the city’s offshore rubbish tip by the cat-loving mayor – unfurls at a commanding clip.

Anderson is a gifted filmmaker, but I sometimes feel that his prodigious talents are directed towards pretty limited aims: namely the manufacture of a charm so peculiarly distinct I’m surprised the filmmaker hasn’t patent-protected it. And charm’s a funny thing – you either get it or you don’t, and in the case of Isle of Dogs it escaped me entirely.

With a tone fluctuating between storybook fable and knowing pastiche, the film focuses on a band of dogs, infected, like all canines in this dystopian future, with the mysterious snout fever and banished to a municipal dump to satisfy the sinister plans of the autocratic Mayor Kobayashi.

Our canine heroes, led by the worldly stray Chief (voiced with gravelly authority by Bryan Cranston), spend most of their time staving off hunger and fighting with other dogs for scraps (staged, in a break from the film’s tone of cutesy anthropomorphism, as a storm of tooth-and-claw violence). But then Atari, the young orphaned nephew of canine-hating Mayor Kobayashi, crash lands on the island, determined to find his pet dog Spots. Moved by Atari’s mission, the dogs pledge themselves to help him – all except Chief, who joins the mission as grudging participant.

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“You make me sick,” Chief deadpans, following up the punchline by vomiting with bestial nonchalance

Along the way there are things to enjoy. The best gags play up the tension between the human characteristics of these talking dogs and their animal nature: “You make me sick,” Chief deadpans to another member of his crew like a wisecracking gangster, except he follows the punchlines by vomiting with bestial nonchalance. And his one-line defiance of attempts to domesticate him is priceless: “I don’t sit,” he says at the command, delivered like a Clint Eastwood sneer.

The story rollicks along, combining with a giddy exuberance Chief and Atari’s imperilled trip across Trash Island, with political intrigue surrounding an upcoming election on Megasaki. And all this is scored to a rolling thunder of drum beats, brilliantly composed by Alexandre Desplat.

But mostly the film falls flat. Anderson has a fascination for gadgets and elaborately anachronistic contraptions – note the loving attention paid to the design of the devices that translate Japanese into English. But this obsession makes for a curiously detached experience: the moving parts in his films are immaculately executed, and it’s a modest delight to see the wheels and cogs turn. But after a while such a fussy, just-so attention to detail grates – and there’s only so much calculated whimsy that I can take.

I’ve liked Anderson’s films in the past, so perhaps like many relationships it’s me, not you Wes. At one point the dog heroes of this film are faced with near-death on a conveyer belt, a situation that Anderson identifies on screen with English and Japanese captions as ‘The End of the Line’, like a fastidious baker decorating a wedding cake. Unless he does something different next, this sumptuous but hollow spectacle feels like the end of the line for Anderson too.

Isle of Dogs is in cinemas from March 30

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