August 16, 2007

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Arctic Tale (G)
Adorable Arctic creatures make us feel bad about global warming in the sweetsy nature film Arctic Tale.

The movie, narrated by Queen Latifah, picks two particularly stuffed-animal-tie-in-ready animals — Nanu the polar bear cub and Seela the walrus pup — to focus on. Also, those are the only two animals to get names on the principle, I’m guessing, that it’s less sad when an animal freezes to death or gets eaten if it doesn’t have a name.

Our movie starts with the beginning of these precocious female animals’ lives. (I suspect the movie deals in girl animals because the whole circle-of-life thing is a little easier to illustrate. Also, the females seem less likely to snap and kill each other.) Both walrus and polar bear tend their children for more or less three years, giving us a chance to watch Nanu’s mom teach her how to plunge through the ice to look for fish and Seela’s mom and auntie teach her how to pull herself up onto ice floes. (The movie never really explains, other than to say aunties are common, why Seela’s mom has a sister-wife or girlfriend or nanny helping with the rearing; unfortunate because the group dynamic of the walrus herd actually becomes one of the more interesting aspects of the animals.) The girls grow — with a little help from Latifah’s sing-songy narration and the relentlessly playful background score — into sassy youngsters. For Nanu, the big issues become finding good hunting ground for the seals and, well, walruses that make up a big part of the polar bear diet. For Seela, the need for solid land (or solid ice floes) is nearly as important as food. The walrus herd needs places to rest in addition to places to feed.

And here’s where you and I and the rest of our carbon fuel-burning species come in. Due to climate change, ice cracks earlier and freezes later, making it harder for Nanu and family to hunt and harder for Seela and clan to rest. The hunter-gatherer-wanderer existence of these animals has become more difficult to sustain. The walruses have to swim farther, the polar bears go longer between meals.

That wacky Nanu, that nutty Seela, those silly girls with their paws or their eensy weensy tusks. Yes, the movie made me feel bad about the whole destruction-of-an-ecosystem thing. Sorry, Nanu and Seela. But my guilt at slowly ruining the Arctic with my compact sedan isn’t quite enough to keep me from getting a little queasy from all the adorableness. These animals seem more like Disney characters (and, because they are girls, princesses no less, the absolute favorite character genre of Disney) than actual creatures in nature. Far too much effort goes into showing them as darling, making them seem less wild and therefore less interesting.

Arctic Tale is clearly going for The March of the Penguins territory. But that ode to the penguin didn’t have to give its subjects names or make cutesy fart jokes (look, the walrus tooted!). There, we saw the group of penguins living, dying, failing, striving, having penguin sex and raising chicks in a dangerous and beautiful landscape. Here, zoo animals seem to caper across a detailed but less majestic re-creation of their natural environments (the Artic is strangely beautiful; we wouldn’t need a narrator to pound that fact into our heads if the movie would stop trying to aw-shucks-up its inhabitants). Queen Latifah is a good narrator with a fine voice but here she just sounds like she’s reading from an overly precious preschooler’s picture book. C

Rated G. Directed by Adam Racetch and Sarah Robertson and written by Linda Woolverton, Mose Richards and Kristin Gore (yes, that Gore), Arctic Tale is an hour and 36 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Paramount Vantage.