My Dog Tulip, the first theatrical feature by indie animators Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, is a most delicate and charming thing. It's also a bit sleepy; probably out of sheer necessity, given the film's topic, but that doesn't make it much easier to get through the thing without feeling like you've just been British Sensibleness'd to death.

The film is based upon the 1956 book by memoirist and all-around literary bon vivant J.R. Ackerly, an acquaintance of a number of literary figures and one of midcentury England's few open and proud homosexuals, who had by the '40s concluded that he no particular attachment to other human beings, despite a lifetime of looking for one true, close friend. It was in this state that he adopted a German Shepherd named Queenie - changed to Tulip in the book and hence the film - who became the single great love of his life.

My Dog Tulip - the film, anyway; I admit to having not read the book - is the story of the first couple of years of Ackerly's life with Tulip/Queenie, and while it is full of specific anecdotes and reminiscences about one dog in particular, it is in truth the story of all doting dog owners and the animals with whom they share their lives (I confess myself a cat person, and I suppose there's a real possibility that this is one of my difficulties in fully engaging with the movie). Ackerly takes his affection for and fascination with Tulip to fairly obsessive extremes, but not passed the point where it makes sense to anyone who has ever had a beloved pet.

Ackerly is played by Christopher Plummer; the film consists of almost nothing else but a recitation of the author's words, illustrated by the Fierlingers in a scratchy aesthetic that looks for all the world like chalk on paper, but we are assured by the end credits that every inch of the process was done on computer. There are guest appearances by Isabella Rossellini as a veterinarian and Lynn Redgrave (in her final role before her premature death) as Ackerly's sister Nancy, but by and large the whole film is just the art and Plummer, and the effect is uncannily like a fully illustrated audiobook. And herein we start to come to the pleasures and the great problems of the film.

From the evidence of everything we hear in the film, Ackerly seems to have been in possession of quite a keen sense of language and a vibrant eye for detail (More admissions: in addition to having not read My Dog Tulip, I've never read anything else by the man, and I only knew of him at all from a quote that serves as the film's epigram: "Unable to love each other, the English turn naturally to dogs"), and hearing Plummer's warm voice reciting the author's delicious prose is, in and of itself, quite a keen pleasure. Out of choice or poverty, the filmmakers did not sweeten the audio recording whatsoever, which means that we hear every smack of Plummer's lips, every breath he takes, and while it's more than a little distracting, it gives a very present feel to the recital.

This is pleasant, as far as it goes, though awfully sedative: what must be a perfectly lovely book to curl up with under a blanket is not nearly as lively as we expect from film, and the movie seems at times like its best purpose is to play on TV in the background as you fall asleep. There's also the matter of the story's content: Ackerly's chief mission in the early stages of his time with Tulip consists mainly of being fascinated by her bodily functions, and concluding that his dog, unlike himself, has a deep need for sexual connection. If that sounds like it translates into a whole lot of musings on dog shit and dog fucking, then I've described it right. Kudos to the book and movie for dealing with this sort of taboo subject in a mature way, though one might reasonably question if the Fierlingers really needed to use quite so many squishy wet sound effects in the parts of the narrative where Ackerly describes Tulip's bowel movements with a level of enthusiasm that would suggest unchecked coprophilia if it weren't so refined and English.

The problem is really only that the film, after a while, starts to circle around endlessly: Ackerly tries to mate Tulip with this dog, and then that dog, and then a third dog, and it frankly gets tedious. Everything about the film, from the Plummer narration to the loose animation style, suggests a tony 30-minute or so short, and the sheer volume of "Why can't I get my dog laid?" angst only reiterates the feeling that My Dog Tulip would be a great deal more effective if it were a hell of a lot shorter.

The good news, for animation buffs at least, is that the Fierlingers have married this well-intentioned but ultimately middling content to an altogether distinctive visual style, impressions of form rather than detailed drawings, done up in a computer-aided hybridisation of chalk and watercolor. It takes some getting used to: when characters speak, their mouths move only incidentally, and body movement is somehow halting and exaggerated at the same time. But after a little while, it becomes quite beautiful, in its off-kilter way: it looks deliberately rough and quick, like someone trying to sketch something fast before they forget what it was they were sketching, and it augments very well the script, with its rapid drifting from thought to thought. It feels very much like an animated memoir ought to feel, in other words, and though I am unpersuaded that My Dog Tulip was screaming out to be made into a movie, I think it's fair to say that this is a movie that quite fairly represents the material in all its strengths (nostaligia, amazed fascination with animals, bittersweet psychology) and weaknesses (seriously, it's an arthouse movie with a good dozen or so dog shit jokes).