“Arctic Tale” may be a part of the new wave of theatrically-released documentaries, and as befitting a piece co-written by Al Gore’s daughter, it claims contemporary relevance by making much of the effects of global warming on the various species that inhabit the North Pole. But the picture from directors Adam Ravetch and Sarah Robertson seems more like a throwback to the Disney live-action nature pieces of the fifties, marked by overly cute narration, dubious musical choices, and an extreme tendency to anthropomorphism.
The film, shot under what must have been difficult conditions over a considerable period of time (six years, according to the press information), edits and arranges the footage to follow two young animals—a baby polar bear called Nanu and a baby walrus called Seela—as they’re taught by their elders to survive in the frigid and changing environment. Nanu initially has a brother, but a sad event intervenes to leave her and her mother alone in the wild. Seela, on the other hand, is part of a fairly large herd, chief among whom are her mother and a protective older walrus the narration christens as Auntie.
Some of the footage is quite instructive. The parts focusing on the older animals’ hunting tips to the newborn about stalking and catching their food are very interesting, and segments dealing with animals other than the bears and the walruses (like a fox that shadows the bears) are in some ways more engaging than the through-stories. And the warning about how the animals are being endangered by alterations in their habitat brought about by climate change and the diminution of the ice cover is certainly appropriate and will, perhaps, make an impression on viewers.
On the other hand, the effort to humanize the main “characters” goes much too far, and the narration is studded with turns of phrase likely to make you wince. It’s hard to maintain one’s composure when Queen Latifah—not the best choice of speaker under any circumstances—informs us at one point that Nanu is trapped “between a fox and a hard place,” merely the worst example of a tendency to bad punning and corny turns of phrase. The selection of background tunes is just as unfortunate. Inserting Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” at one point and using Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” at another are the most egregious offenses, but there are others.
“Arctic Tale” also panders to the current fashion in family films to joke around with bodily functions. Have you ever seen a walrus farting? Well, an extended sequence here gives you the chance to listen to a whole chorus of them doing so.
In other words, the problem with the picture isn’t the footage that the makers have assembled: much of it is fascinating, and given the conditions under which it was collected, you have to admire their persistence and dedication. It’s the way it’s been tied together to make an overly cutesy, ludicrously anthropomorphic critter feature, even if it is in a good cause.
“Arctic Tale” comes with the imprimatur of National Geographic Productions, which is an indication of its good intentions and sound craftsmanship. Unfortunately, in this case it’s not a guarantee of the quality of the final result.