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When looking at animated films on a technical level, what’s being achieved is borderline miraculous. Unlike a live-action movie, which these days can come together with a vague idea and a smart phone, animated films are made of pure creation – with hundreds of filmmakers collaborating to build every inch of a world, and smallest details of characters’ faces.
Because of this, the creation of features in this medium is by itself an achievement – but there is an inherent double-edged sword nature to that reality. Namely, hard work shines brightly, but so does laziness. When the effort is clearly lacking in one or more areas, it’s impossible not to notice. This is the experience of director Aaron Woodley’s Arctic Dogs.
While there are many animated films that have clearly gone through rigorous story-building processes, this is a movie that feels like it was generated based on first ideas only, the initial one seemingly being the inexplicable “Let’s make a movie about an artic fox and call it Arctic Dogs.” It’s the only way to explain away just how half-baked everything feels, from the ridiculous central premise that envisions postal working animals as lauded superheroes, to the assortment of lame characters brought to life by A-list performers cashing a paycheck.
Arctic Dogs’ plot makes little to no sense, as a clear lack of effort shines through
Taking us to the fictional tundra of Taigasville, the film’s first-person voice over exposition introduces us Swifty (Jeremy Renner), a young artic fox that has a natural gift for blending into its snowy surroundings, but wants to do anything but be invisible. He instead has a real desire to shine, and grows up idolizing Duke (Michael Madsen), Dakota (Laurie Holden), and Dusty (Donny Falsetti): the three Top Dogs at the local delivery service who are (for some unclear reason) considered celebrities for dropping off packages in the neighborhood.
Swifty grows up to become a junior employee at the delivery company, always hoping that the caribou in charge, Magda (Anjelica Huston), will look past his species and diminutive size and promote him to Top Dog. Eventually he gets fed up and tired of waiting, though, and wanting to impress his childhood crush, Jade (Heidi Klum), he secretly goes on a mission to transport a package. In doing so, though, he discovers a nefarious plot being cooked up by a sinister walrus (John Cleese) that could spell doom for Taigasville.
In Arctic Dogs, tired gags from the 90s are far more valuable than decent character or plot development
As Arctic Dogs plays out, you can register some shadows of concepts that vaguely resemble themes – from Swifty’s desire to stand out of the crowd overshadowing his personal responsibilities, a touch of commentary about global warming and fracking – but it’s also made excessively clear that the movie has no desire to access any depth if it a) means slowly down the A-to-B plot in any way, and/or b) might get in the way of juvenile jokes that have been tired for two decades (this is a film that not once, but twice goes for the “What’s the worst that can happen?” gag).
All of the characters are totally one dimensional, and while that wouldn’t normally matter for silly parts like James Franco’s Lemmy, a dumber-than-a-brick albatross who only serves as comic relief working alongside Swifty sorting packages, it becomes an issue when those kinds of silly parts can’t generate a single laugh. There isn’t anything deep or interesting about the roles for the audience to engage with because the film just doesn’t seem to care about providing. Even its attempt to promote the idea of women in STEM fields by having Jade featured as an engineer falls flat on its face, as its revealed that she has been working with the main villain for years and never bothering to question what she is working on.
Not only is the script incomprehensible, but Arctic Dogs’ animation is shoddy as well
These kinds of issues are not limited to the plot either, as the animation just isn’t up to snuff compared to the other feature releases we’re seeing these days (including the comparable icy environments we’re seeing in another 2019 releases like Abominable and Frozen II). Arctic Dogs starts off by doing some interesting things artistically, particularly as Swifty appears and disappears in the snow as a pup, but most of the movie just looks cheap. By modern standards, some elements actually appear to not be fully rendered, and there are instances you can catch out of sync dialogue.
Then there’s just the stylistic choices the movie makes and the extra mile details that it doesn’t bother with. You’d think a character like Swifty, who has a particular desire to stand out, would dress in flashy clothes and try to really pop from his environment, but his only costume in the film is an olive parka and grey pants. And while you’d think that an animation team would have a lot of fun animating and designing a protagonist when they are hung over, a few scribbled words in sharpie on Swifty’s face are meant to be entirely illustrative instead of giving the character bloodshot eyes, dark sockets, or mussy fur.
When a film isn’t screened in advance for critics, one must try and put aside any preconceived notions that the scenario suggest – but in the case of Arctic Dogs, it’s plainly obvious why its distributor tried to hide it. If you simply like hearing recognizable celebrity voices you may at least get some semblance of entertainment out of this one, but it’s entirely skippable by every other metric.