Think of “Arctic Tale” as a mash-up between “March of the Penguins” and “An Inconvenient Truth” — apropos, since it’s being marketed at Starbucks like some innocuous folk-rock music — except unlike both of those movies, it isn’t even trying to be a pure documentary.
Yes, all the footage of polar bears and walruses is real and often extraordinary in both its grandeur and intimacy. Husband-and-wife filmmakers Adam Ravetch and Sarah Robertson spent the past 15 years braving the Canadian Arctic elements for this National Geographic production and came back with truly wondrous, moving images. (Here’s some advice: Bring tissues.)
They crawl inside an ice cave with a mother polar bear and her tiny newborns and swim closely among 2,000-pound walruses in the freezing deep, among many how’d-they-do-that? moments they collected. Visually, their perseverance and patience paid off.
But what’s problematic is that Ravetch and Robertson have manipulated those shots to create a fictional, family-friendly fable that serves as a warning about global warming.
With the help of Queen Latifah, whose narration often feels too cutesy and gets in the way, they introduce us to Nanu, a spirited polar bear cub, and Seela, a roly-poly walrus pup. (Linda Woolverton and Mose Richards wrote the narration along with Al Gore’s daughter, Kristin.)
Through parallel story lines, we watch the two from infancy and follow them as they grow up, struggle to survive amid a changing climate, and ultimately have babies of their own. They cavort, they hunt, they deal with dangers and learn from their mistakes. We probably didn’t need to hear Sister Sledge’s hackneyed “We Are Family” as a herd of walruses lolls around on an ice floe, however, and we definitely didn’t need to listen to them engaging in an extended flatulence session after eating thousands upon thousands of clams.
The furry fluffball Nanu is completely irresistible, though, especially while tumbling around in the snow with her baby brother. And while Seela may not be as cuddly, she’s got an endearing expressiveness about her.
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Trouble is, Nanu and Seela are composites of several different polar bears and walruses. We’re not watching two animals from start to finish as it initially seems, but rather several creatures whose experiences have been patched together and anthropomorphized for maximum heart-tugging effect.
Ravetch explains the approach in the movie’s production notes: “We wanted to go beyond the limits of a wildlife film, to create something more personal and intimate that reveals something not only about the animals but ourselves, too.”
But despite the film’s undeniable technical achievements, it’s hard to walk out of the theater without sensing that you’ve witnessed a bit of a cheat. Maybe that’s OK with you because the message, and the individual moments, are so worthwhile. Maybe kids will be entertained or even feel inspired to turn off the bathroom light switch after they’re done brushing their teeth, and that’s enough.