What arises from all this – it is hard to say how consciously – is a feeling that the escape mechanism is itself a trap. Anderson's exotic backdrops may vary, but his stylistic mannerisms recur obsessively from one film to the next: always the same centred framing, the same knowing quips flatly delivered, the same straight lines that divide up the image like the bars of a cage.
The line between innocence and sophistication is a tricky one to walk – but then, Anderson's films would not have much tension without a sense that the illusion might collapse at any moment. This urgency is what is missing from Isle of Dogs, his ninth feature overall and his second experiment with stop-motion animation (following his 2008 Roald Dahl adaptation Fantastic Mr Fox).
Set 20 years in the future, the film takes place in an imaginary Japan assembled from cliches old and relatively new: woodblock prints and geishas, but also the skyscrapers and robots familiar from the last few decades of Japanese animation.
While human characters speak mostly unsubtitled Japanese, the heroes are a pack of talking dogs voiced by well-known American actors (among them Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton and Bill Murray). Accused of carrying disease, they've been separated from their masters by the tyrannical rulers of Megasaki City and exiled like all their species to an island dominated by metallic piles of trash.
With its dystopian setting and stark colour scheme – mostly black, brown and grey – this is outwardly one of Anderson's bleakest films. It's also one of his dullest and least emotional: the convoluted story is too schematic, and too silly, to encourage any intense involvement.
Absent is the kind of hero found in Anderson's best films, including Fantastic Mr Fox: an unreliable but charismatic leader whose grandiose fantasies drive the story forward, and who can be taken, on some level, as a stand-in for the director.
Here, the puppets are just puppets: beautifully designed, but without the illusion of life. The five lead dogs are assigned individual traits: one is gossipy, another a defiant stray, and so forth. But they form a democratic unit as variants of a single personality, all male and all bearing jokingly macho names such as Rex and Chief (the female dogs, typically for Anderson, are romantic interests and little more).
As for the humans, the boy hero (Koyu Rankin) maintains a doll-like blankness; the Megasaki City officials gabbling Japanese into the camera are too close to racist caricatures for comfort; and the decision to make the enterprising heroine an American exchange student (voiced by Greta Gerwig) is puzzlingly tone-deaf.
Anderson has always flaunted a degree of casual racism, as part of his nostalgic embrace of the dreams of boyhood. But the jokiness here verges on bad taste, given the awareness of real-world history implicit in the concentration-camp imagery and elsewhere (a glimpse of miniature mushroom cloud is the single worst-judged moment).
As always, Anderson's cunning lies in keeping overt significance at bay while juggling multiple potential meanings. On one level, the dogs yearning for their masters are like wandering samurai out of an Akira Kurosawa film; on another, they suggest disillusioned adults who have learned that growing out of childhood dependency means trading one prison for another.
Poised between sentimentality and irony, Isle of Dogs finally leaves the impression of a disgust too intense to be permitted a full outlet (as in the work of Steven Spielberg, Anderson's spiritual elder brother). While these dogs may fancy themselves as wild animals, they remain nearly as fastidious as their creator: even as they roam a landscape of garbage, the script noticeably steers clear of bodily-function jokes.
Jake Wilson was born in London and grew up in Melbourne. He got his start reviewing movies for various websites and has been writing for the Age since 2006.
Morning & Afternoon Newsletter