It may have “dogs” in the title, but do you know what the recent animated film “Arctic Dogs” reminded me of? Airplanes.
In particular, the film brought to mind “The Big Bear Aircraft Company,” a short book written in the late 1980’s by Disney animator Chris Sanders, who would go on to direct “Lilo and Stitch,” “How to Train your Dragon” and the forthcoming live-action “Call of the Wild” reboot. In his book, Sanders allegorically criticizes the Disney corporate culture of the day- an assembly line system where characters and situations were rotely plugged into the studio’s format, and original ideas suffered.
“Bear has been having trouble,” Sanders wrote. “His planes are selling, but they aren’t the same that they used to be. Bear’s planes lack imagination, they can’t pace themselves properly, and the engines lack warmth and sincerity. People lose interest in them quickly even though they are painted with bright, garish colors. They are advertised and sold as classics, but they just simply are not.”
The end result of this process is implied: At some point, people are going to wise up and stop buying the planes altogether.
Disney has, in recent years, gotten their feet back under them, but that doesn’t mean that animation isn’t still as formula-driven as it was back in the eighties. But, thankfully, it seems like the viewing public is starting to wise up and realize that some planes will never take flight.
That brings us back to “Arctic Dogs,” the first and hopefully last animated film from Entertainment Studios. Every piece of the film is engineered to win the love of you and your children. The characters are cute, the voices are starry, and the plot is foolproof since it has been used for dozens of other movies. But the engine, to borrow Sanders’ analogy, lacks warmth and sincerity.
Thankfully, people noticed. Made for $50 million, “Arctic Dogs” earned only $10 million when it was released in 2,800 theaters last November. Even families desperate for entertainment knew this plane couldn’t fly. Good for them.
The story, which was somehow written by no less than five(!) people, could have been written by Mad Lib. You’ve seen this story before: the one where (insert species of animal here) pursues his dream of being a (insert profession here) and has to fight an evil (insert the most evil animal you can think of here) to protect his (insert natural habitat here).
The specific ways the writers fill out the Mad Lib aren’t of special interest in “Arctic Dogs”. Neither, really, is the animation or the music or the character design.
It might be worth noting that the film has a star-studded cast including no less than four Academy Award nominees in Jeremy Renner, James Franco, Alec Baldwin and Anjelica Huston. Nearly everybody gives flat, uninspired line readings. At least the great John Cleese has a bit of fun as an evil walrus.
Some puffins pop in with the hopes of being this film’s Minions. Fart jokes are made and repeated as are inspirational messages about being yourself.
For the life of me, I cannot think of a single joke that landed. “Arctic Dogs” (rated PG for some mild action and rude humor) clocks in at just 90 minutes, but it feels oh-so-much longer.
“Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive,” Walt Disney once said. And, indeed, animation can take people on amazingly impossible adventures. But when the mind of man conceives little, the films themselves falter.
That’s what Sanders knew, and the team behind “Arctic Dogs” just found out. Here’s hoping they learned their lesson.
P.S. The entirety of “The Big Bear Airplane Company” is available for free online here. You can read it in about 1/50 of the time it takes to watch “Arctic Dogs,” and it is considerably more charming and funny. It is well worth a read.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.