Arctic Tale may have gotten a raw deal by being released two years after March of the Penguins. Essentially, the narratives are the same: following the lives of animals as they fulfill the circle of life, all captured in their in the frigid expanses of their natural habitat. It takes the animals to human levels, establishing an emotional connection between the viewer and the subject, as they go through a different variation of the same things that we go through. But, atop it all, the filmmakers also want to communicate a sense of threatening gravity to their fading existence, bringing attention to the damage that our consumer-driven decisions impose on their cut-off corner of the world -- this time, the Arctic Melt predicted for 2040.
Both are relevant and moving tales, but the facts come first: Arctic Tale is the aptly-made, beautifully shot second banana to their 2005 feature-length film. Which is a shame, since the success of March of the Penguins might have messed around with what could've been a more sprawling and gripping nature story in National Geographic's follow-up.
Utilizing footage shot over the course of fifteen (15) years and narrated by Queen Latifah, Arctic Tale follows two female animals as they flow through the circle of life -- Seela, a young walrus, and Nanu, a polar bear. It shows them take their first steps (or flaps, in the walrus' case) and learn the harsh ways of polar life amid a melting point. As it takes us through their trials and tribulations, expanses of hunger and hunting alike, filmmakers Adam Ravteck and Sarah Roberts work diligently to build up an emotion bond between the audience and the focal creatures.
And it works, as a genuine affection develops for the two creatures and their families. Largely due to the emotion-heavy, storybook-style narration, more the fault of its ham-fisted script, there's a sense of waiting on bated breath to see if they'll survive this process. On a grander scale with a full-on touching narrative underneath, the concept of following these "enemies" (though they're supposedly not all that likely to attack one another) and building empathy for them is a fairly affecting experience -- especially when they're as cute as Seela and Nanu. That's right, I said it. They're all very cute.
A problem crops up in the way the filmmakers make Arctic Tale a little too emotionally driven in order to communicate their agenda -- specifically, how they handle death with some of the main characters. In that, there's an emotional imbalance. This is why the likes of "Planet Earth" and other non-story nature documentaries can be more pleasing to a broader crowd, as they display nature in a raw, "order of the universe" way that doesn't shoe-string viewer affection. Not here; not only are their stories force-fed to us through weepy dialogue, they're backed up with a beautiful yet painstakingly melodramatic eye that refuses its audience to view it as Darwinism. It really does help its agenda along even further, even if it tries too hard to nudge both younger and older audiences. I think they could've gotten the point across just as well while dialing the sobbing tone down a notch or two.
Without question, the star of Arctic Tale is the incredible cinematography. As you'd expect, the crisp scenery is exquisite to behold, bombarding the eyes with a broad range of icy blues and blistering whites that never grow dull or uninteresting within its eighty-six (86) minutes. It feels very in-line with National Geographic's tone in composition and framing, yet there's an extra kick of personality when it takes us in for close-ups. Through power struggles between polar bears and the plight of walruses to climb a rocky ledge, plenty of attempts at tapping into emotion arise within these shots. They're given weight through clever editing; taking around 800 hours of footage into her hands, editor Beth Spiegel does great things with keeping proximity between the walruses and polar bears -- even though they rarely ever made contact.
Ultimately, Arctic Tale has all the bits and pieces that it needs to be a stellar nature docu-drama, but it can't avoid standing in the shadows of its Oscar-winning predecessor when everything comes together -- seeming a bit cheesier and a little less emotionally involving, even if it tries harder to be more so. But it's still gorgeous, maybe a bit more so than March, and compelling on a somewhat family-friendly level that doesn't try and force-feed too much science into the mix. Plus, it has narwhals("the unicorns of the sea"), and anything capturing narwhals on film in their habitat is worth watching.
Video and Audio:
Though the cinematography might be on par with March of the Penguins, Paramount's Blu-ray transfer of Arctic Tale- likely the same as the HD-DVD version, framed at 1.78:1 -- isn't quite the stunning experience that was expected. Though the dynamic blues fluctuate in tone against the stark whites with plenty of precision, it's near impossible to shake the overly grainy nature of this 1080p AVC encode. Some of it comes from the source, but that doesn't shelter it from showcasing some of its digital weakness and relative blurriness. Still, the cinematography looks outstanding through the detail-killing veil, and the image stays distortion free. It's a pleasing visual experience at times, but far from perfect and not all that much of a boost above its standard-definition counterpart.
Fairing a bit better is the Dolby TrueHD track, which strikes a rather resonant chord with natural sound effects. Though most of the activity stays to the front, atmospheric additions pour to the back like rushing water and, well, walrus farts. The most potent sound that echoes across the speakers an into the lower-frequency channel is the crackling of the melting ice, likely a purposeful achievement. Each snap and booming creak along the ice fills the entire soundstage with surprising brevity. Along with those environmental effects, Queen Latifah's vocals and the musical accompaniment stays crisp and pleasing to the ears at all times -- weepy direction of their content aside. Subtitles are available in optional English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese options to accompany the TrueHD track, along with French and Spanish Dolby Digital legacy tracks.
Making of Arctic Tale (24:06, SD MPEG-2):
Almost as interesting as the feature itself, this making-of documentary captures the filmmakers as they struggle with waiting ... and waiting ... to grab the beautiful shots from the film. It shows behind-the-scenes footage on how they were able to grab these shots (picture lying on a half-frozen patch of ice and leaning into water) as well as how the animals interacted with the crew. If the goal of a featurette is to make you appreciate the product even more, then this piece nails that.
Also available is a short Polar Beat Watching featurette (7:03, SD MPEG-2) which follows a group of kids on a polar bear watching trip in a large moped-type vehicle, and a Theatrical Trailer (HD AVC).
Simply, Arctic Tale isn't as good as its Oscar-winning predecessor, mainly because it seems like it was trying to emulate a similar tone. Instead, the aesthetic tones -- blending sappy narration and overly dramatic scoring -- overshadow some incredible footage that, honestly, would likely play out better with no scoring and minimal narration. Still, it's a spectacularly shot nature documentary that's worth a Rental for the footage.