Somewhat surprisingly, Arctic Tale (2007) isn't the work of Luc Jacquet, who directed March of the Penguins (2005), though he might just as well have. Quite inexplicably, the French-made Penguins became a box office sensation, grossing $77 million in the United States alone, unheard of for a nature documentary. A co-production of Visionbox Pictures, National Geographic Films and, of all things, Starbucks Entertainment (yes, the coffee company), Arctic Tale blatantly rides Penguin's tail, much less spectacularly at the box office as it turned out, and while it has many exceptional qualities, basically it adopts and in some ways accentuates all of the French-made documentary's faults.
If you've seen March of the Penguins and realize this film involves a polar bear cub and a baby walrus you probably can guess exactly where this film's going to go. (Mild Spoilers to follow) As with Penguins, and harking back to other cyclically structured nature stories like Bambi, Arctic Tale follows Nanu the polar cub and Seela the walrus pup as they're reared by their respective mothers, learn the ways of their species, face life-threatening hardships, and eventually mate and have offspring of their own. The creatures apparently are in reality composites of several different animals.
The extravagantly overrated March of the Penguins struck an unintended (at least by Jacquet) chord with American religious conservatives who, rather bizarrely, misinterpreted the film's subjects as a model for Christian-based "family values." Partly this reaction was the director's fault; humankind's nature is to want to anthropomorphize animals - penguins, with their tuxedo-like feathers, are especially prone to such manipulation.
Arctic Tale deliberately goes several steps further in attempting to humanize its subjects, giving them names while both the music track and especially the narration go way overboard trying to liken bears and walruses to you and me. In lieu of hard facts (the drama Never Cry Wolf is actually more informative about Arctic life), the condescending narration is written as if it were story-time at the daycare center. Nanu lives on "Snow Mountain" and later she and Seela travel to "Rock Island." I was almost expecting a side-trip to "Santa's Magic Castle."
When Nanu's brother - who goes unnamed, so you know he's dead meat - ignores its mother's attempts to teach it polar bear stuff, Queen Latifah's narration muses, "Trouble is, practicing somersaults is much more fun!" When the hapless cub tumbles back into the birth den, narrator Latifah's giggles, "Hey-hey! Hole in one!" Personally, I found this over-emphatically down-to-earth narration so annoying I actually switched to the French track 30-minutes in, just to escape Latifah's gratingly earthy delivery. Annoying too is the film's soundtrack, all too obviously chosen for its soundtrack CD potential. Was Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" really needed to underscore the structure of the walrus herd?
The issue of global warming is raised intelligently over the course of the film but not during the end titles. Throughout the film, the filmmakers understate the plight of these creatures and their rapidly changing environment by letting the images speak for themselves. The polar bears rely on the ice to hunt seals and the like, while the walruses need large and plentiful ice floes to rest upon. Simply watching these magnificent creatures struggling in the icy water, swimming for days at a time, is dramatic enough. Conversely, over the end titles, children look directly at the camera pleading with moviegoers to car pool and use energy-saving light bulbs to save poor Nanu and Seela. Though well-intentioned, this bludgeoning pitch for energy conservation is as irritating as the narration while undermining what came before it.
In the end, it's the raw footage of the animals themselves and their environment that make Arctic Tale tolerable as visually compelling infotainment. Directors Adam Ravetch and Sarah Robertson and others shot footage of the bears and walruses over 15 years, unaware their efforts would be molded into a cash-in feature film release, and the footage is undeniably interesting and frequently dramatic.
Video & Audio
As it was shot in a mix of cinematographic and video technologies (with most of the underwater footage seemingly shot in standard-def video) Arctic Tale is a mixed bag visually. Some footage looks spectacular while a lot of it looks just okay. The IMDb reports that the film was shot in 35mm, but I wouldn't be surprised if most of it was filmed in Super 16 or something similar. The 1.78:1 / 1080p / MPEG-2 presentation otherwise is acceptable.
The audio, in 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus (in English, French, and Spanish, accompanied by optional subtitles in those languages plus Portuguese) is routine. The music benefits but little else; I was surprised more effort wasn't put into the sound mixing considering conveying the Arctic environment would seem to be one of the filmmakers' primary goals.
Supplements are limited to a 23-minute making-of featurette in 480i/p standard definition, with behind-the-scenes footage of the husband-wife filmmakers at work, and a short Polar Bear Spotting kiddie show. For some reason the film clips in the former look pretty terrible, though newer interview footage looks fine. The latter features the kids aboard one of several enormous "Tundra Buggies" that probably burn enough fossil fuel to melt a good-sized glacier. Only the trailer is presented in high-def.
Arctic Tale is the kind of nature documentary enjoyed by undemanding family audiences and adults who never watch similar and often better nature documentaries on television. The anthropomorphization of the animals and Queen Latifah's cloying narration almost bring it down, but the raw material of the animals in their tragically changing environment save it in the end. Rent It.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel. His audio commentary for Invasion of Astro Monster is now available.