Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox (2009) didn’t set the box office alight on its theatrical release, but it did provide something of a reset for his directorial vision. After the twin critical shrug of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach found solace in the world of Roald Dahl and the limitless imagination of stop-motion. Before, Anderson had felt tethered into the real world but now he could create his own.

So now, emboldened by the financial and critical success of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), he returns to stop-motion, but on a much grander scale, with Isle of Dogs.

The story concerns a massive dog flu epidemic within the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki. When all the dogs are banished to the-as-bad-as-it-sounds Trash Island, the Mayor's 12 year old ward Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin) sets off in pursuit of his bodyguard dog Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber). There, he encounters a pack of dogs including Rex, King, Boss and Chief (voiced by Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Bryan Cranston) who, with some reluctance from an ostensible loner stray in the aforementioned Chief, agree to help him find Spots. There's the obvious parallels with today's society, which seems keen on segregation, with the dogs being banished. A clever move by Anderson.

A visual and technical marvel, Isle of Dogs might be the biggest stop-motion picture ever attempted – at least in terms of scale, and it's certainly the longest at an hour and 41 minutes. There are so many sets and set-pieces, characters of small and large proportions and details on show that it's impossible to take in the wealth of visual information on a single viewing. It's very much a Wes Anderson film in that respect, and a dense world of superlative design – a testament to the stop-motion team at the 3 Mills studio in London, led by cinematographer Tristan Oliver (a veteran of Fantastic Mr Fox).

Where it differs slightly is in the execution of those ideas. Anderson has always been an appropriator of other cinema and this time he takes a lot of visual cues and jokes from Japanese cinema, specifically that of Akira Kurosawa. Mayor Kobayashi, the cat loving villain of the piece, strongly resembles Kurosawa's iconic collaborator, Toshirô Mifune and there is a musical cue, alongside regular Anderson composer Alexandre Desplat's use of tribal drums, which is lifted from Seven Samurai (1954).

Some critics have argued that there is a hint of racism to the way that Anderson has appropriated those elements. Indeed, the use of English language actors for all of the dogs but Japanese actors for nearly all of the humans – the primary exceptions being Greta Gerwig's foreign exchange senior student Tracy Walker, and Frances McDormand as Interpreter Nelson – has been strongly discussed in the media. Tracy Walker being, by default, the only American character acting as an audience surrogate. The McDormand character provides a lot of expository dialogue that is not covered by Courtney B. Vance's occasional narrator (who is separate to proceedings). It's definitely a discussion worth having, but it feels on this occasion that Anderson is only reflecting his knowledge of cinema rather than any untoward thoughts on modern Japan.

With the lessened use of the English language, Anderson's typical deadpan line readings are slightly reduced, but his usual thematic devices are present. Chief is a typical reluctant Anderson protagonist in the vein of Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman's character) from Rushmore (1998) or Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) from The Life Aquatic. There's an arrogance that gets tempered along the way, via the dark and depressing world that these characters inhabit – while most of the humour is pitched in from visual gags and descriptions.

The ambition is massive, though it perhaps lacks the emotions at the heart of his best work such as Rushmore or Moonrise Kingdom (2012). It's certainly a less mainstream picture than The Grand Budapest Hotel – which at times resembled a greatest hits collection – but it might be all the better for its shifting of the usual elements. Some performers get more to do than others (Murray and Goldblum feel slightly underused) but you couldn't say it's to the detriment of the film, which is a highly detailed, visually stunning and wittily written piece with a lot to say about immigration and persecution. It helps that it's a lot of fun to watch too.