Review: 'Arctic Dogs'
So, the premise of the movie is that there is a fox who really wants to be a dog. I'm sorry, but I'm having trouble understanding who thought this was a good idea.
In case you don't want to read a whole different review on top of this one, I'll just spoil that one for you and say that I did not like Spark very much. But, Aaron Woodley now has the unique distinction of having directed two fully furry movies, featuring fully-anthropomorphic animal characters without any humans, theatrically released to American cinemas. That's a notable achievement. We now seem to have a mainstream director who specializes in furry movies. That's good!
Pity about the movies.
Arctic Dogs is the story of an Arctic fox named Swifty (voiced by Jeremy Renner) who grew up and lives in a remote Arctic village known as Taigaville (which, I should stress, is solely populated by anthropomorphic animal characters). Everyone, Swifty included, idolizes the local Arctic Blast Delivery Service's "Top Dogs", who themselves point out that they're just mailmen, really. Swifty is convinced that he wants to be one of these Top Dogs, and eventually gets a job at the ABDS, though not as a delivery fox, just yet.
Swifty finally gets the chance to deliver a package for his childhood friend, the red fox Jade (Heidi Klum), who is also Swifty's romantic interest. On one hand, this is technically that "cross-species pollination" I've been tracking since Kung Fu Panda 3. On the other hand, I'm not sure the movie is aware that Arctic and red foxes aren't just nature's version of palette swaps.
Anyway, Jade is a mechanic making parts for an evil Walrus (voiced by John Cleese), who unbeknownst to her is actually evil. Swifty manages to make the Walrus think the Top Dogs are suspicious of him, so the Walrus kidnaps them. Swifty becomes the only person aware that the Walrus is up to something (besides a pair of conspiracy theorist otters); he must uncover the plot and then rally his friends at the ABDS to help stop it. Also, he delivers some mail.
The plot is actually pretty complex (I mentioned conspiracy theorist otters), but followable, if full of convenient coincidences. There isn't a lot of suspense or real sense of danger, though. The Walrus commands an army of evil puffins (voiced by the director, Aaron Woodley) who seem to really want to be Minions. They fight with snowball guns. This is a kid's movie, so if the bad guys don't use real bullets, that's fair, but maybe don't have a scene where a comic relief character gets blasted in the face multiple times with the gun stand-in and obviously suffers no ill consequences for it, then have the rest of cast cower behind a snowbank like there were.
The star-struck voice cast includes contributions from Alec Baldwin, James Franco, Anjelica Huston and Michael Madsen. None of them are really necessary, and in some cases the choices are a bit distracting. Madsen as Top Dog Duke was weird for me. Franco, as albatross Lemmy, was the only performance that actually seemed like a voice role. He also got a laugh from me for pointing up the movie's obsession with "funny" accents.
Thematically, the movie is weak. I jokingly pointed out earlier that the premise is that Swifty the fox wants to be a Top Dog, but of course the "lesson" of this kid's movie is that he's better at being a fox than a dog. It's a pretty common kid's movie lesson, "be yourself", but it isn't handled well. Swifty is constantly told that he should be himself, that's he trying to act like someone he's not. Yes, it's obvious he doesn't have the physical qualities of the other Top Dogs (though, it should be noted, in the few scenes he actually gets to deliver mail, he struggles a bit but accomplishes his task successfully), but it's implied that he's not being true to his own "personality", either, despite the fact that he's pretty consistently portrayed throughout the movie.
The character designs are not bad. However, they never really go beyond adequate. They're okay. If I have to say something nice about Spark, I'll say this: at least it had interesting character design. Both in the general sense, a Spark character just looks better than an Arctic Dogs character. In the one case where there is a direct comparison, poor Jade the vixen has nothing on Vix the vixen. Well, okay, she has a better name.
Arctic Dogs is better than Spark, in that it never actively insulted me - though implying global warming would be fixed if we just got rid of one evil walrus is in poor taste. Unfortunately it also never really had any interesting, well, "spark" that made other non-major studio furry animated movies stand out to me. The Nut Job movies had some killer slapstick mixed with a subversive streak, while Rock Dog had that Eddie Izzard performance.
However, if Mr. Woodley would like to direct another furry world movie, I'm okay with that. Maybe third time'll be the charm?