Arctic Tale is co-presented by National Geographic Films, which released March of the Penguins, and Paramount Classics, which released An Inconvenient Truth, and when it grows up Arctic Tale would like to be both of those films. The folksy voiceover narration by Queen Latifah is clearly meant to recall Morgan Freeman’s turn in March of the Penguins, but the overriding theme of climate change would do Al Gore proud, which isn’t surprising, since his daughter Kristin is among the three credited screenwriters.
The catch is, both March of the Penguins and An Inconvenient Truth are documentaries of one sort or another, whereas Arctic Tale, really isn’t. A subtle but important clue appears in the opening titles, in which Queen Latifah is credited not as “Narrator,” but as “Storyteller.” That’s because Arctic Tale, though assembled entirely from documentary footage shot over a six to ten-year period by married filmmakers Adam Ravetch and Sarah Robertson, is really a work of fiction.
Scenes, dramatic confrontations between animals, and ultimately a film-long story arc have been fabricated in the editing room, with originally unrelated bits of footage dovetailed to create the illusion of, say, a showdown between this polar bear and that walrus, when in fact the two animals were never anywhere near each other. Beyond that, footage of various animals shot at different times has been woven together and glossed in the narration to create composite fictional characters: a polar bear cub named “Nanu,” a baby walrus named “Seelah,” and their families, which include the mothers, Nanu’s brother, and Seelah’s “auntie,” who helps Seelah’s mother raise her.
The result is a genre the filmmakers call “nature fiction,” a story that is meant to be representative, but was fabricated in the editing room and on the word processor. The breezy tone established by Latifah’s narration as we follow “Nanu” and “Seelah” overtly recalls the Disney wildlife adventures of the 1950s, a distinctly old-fashioned vibe that has been widely noted by critics (many of whom seem to take it for granted that this is a strike against the film; I’m not sure why). The footage, though, is considerably more remarkable.
Indeed, the raw materials are the best thing about Arctic Tale, and remain the reason to see the film. The landscape is vast and glacial, the animal pups adorable, their struggle for survival amid bleak conditions wrenching. The filmmakers’ camera takes us inside the polar bears’ birthing den, beneath the ice floes with the walruses, and occasionally highlights other species as well, including belugas, orcas, humpbacks, and, most stunningly, unicorn-like narwhals, which look as if they can’t possibly exist.
But there’s no getting away from what this footage has been made into as well. If March of the Penguins provoked debate over the level of anthropomorphism in the dialogue and whether it was over the top, Arctic Tale invites no such debate: It’s over the top. “Auntie must be wondering what she signed up for,” Latifah concludes at one point. Toward the end, when our heroines reach maturity, we’re told that Seelah isn’t like “some females she knows,” willing to take just any male as a mate: “She has standards.”
Even so, Arctic Tale’s story has less anthropomorphic resonance than March of the Penguins. For one thing, March of the Penguins had mothers and fathers together sacrificing and suffering to bring offspring into the world. Arctic Tale is necessarily a story of single mothers, since that’s the way God made polar bears and walruses, but not the way He made people and penguins. In Arctic Tale, male polar bears appear solely as dangerous loners who might kill a cub, until the very end when the mature Nanu finds a mate. That may be representative, but it lacks the built-in family appeal of March of the Penguins.
What is not built in to the subject matter is the filmmakers’ decision to make Arctic Tale an all-girl adventure: the story of two young heroines, their mothers, and an auntie. Nanu does have an unnamed brother cub, but he’s belittlingly contrasted with his sister and largely provides comic relief before coming to a tragic end. “Nanu is feisty, her brother timid,” we’re told in an early scene; later, as their mother teaches them how to drill through layers of snow to search for seals, the narrator tells us, “Nanu seems to have what it takes; her brother… lacks focus.” (“Like a schoolteacher about to zap the kid with Ritalin” is how critic Kyle Smith aptly describes the tone here.)
In the “nature fiction” of the story, this can’t be regarded as a documentary description of a particular polar bear family; in the parade of animals who “play” the various “roles” we can’t even be sure the sexes are being consistently and accurately assigned. The slighting approach to the males continues as the animals approach maturity; as the young walrus bulls try out their mating calls, the narration tells us that it will be some time before these calls are “worth listening to”; until then, the females have “better things to do.” So, the boys need to grow up to be worthy of the girls’ attention, whereas the girls aren’t themselves in need of growing up; they’re just too good for the boys and too fulfilled in their own pursuits.
There is one fascinating development late in the film that warrants mention. Although Arctic Tale isn’t particularly “red in tooth and claw” as nature documentaries go, it does invite us to root for, say, Nanu’s mother as she tries to catch adorable seals to feed her hungry cub, which is all good in my book. Then, toward the end, there’s a sequence in which the starving Nanu, now almost fully grown, is driven to try to attack the walrus herd that includes Seelah, the movie’s other heroine. Nanu, though, is too young and inexperienced to take on something as big as a walrus, though, and she fails.
But then comes the large, experienced male polar bear who has been prowling through the whole film, usually threatening Nanu or chasing her away from his own kills. Initially, the male bear attacks Seelah — but Seelah’s stalwart auntie comes to the rescue, and winds up dying to save her young niece. So far, no surprises — but then the starving Nanu approaches the male bear’s kill, and stubbornly refuses to be driven off as she has in the past. Eventually the male relents — and the life of one heroine is saved as she chows down on the carcass of the other heroine’s beloved auntie. And then Nanu becomes the “mean” male bear’s mate. Arctic Tale may be anthropomorphic, but at least it doesn’t give us an infantile world of nasty predators and nice prey.
If predators aren’t the enemy, what is? Answer: climate change. Here, too, the film’s story is constructed in the editing room; early shots paint a panorama of endless snow and ice, a wonderland of frozen cathedrals and snowbound expanses. Yet as the film progresses, the endless winter white increasingly yields to earth and rock; polar bears founder on treacherously slushy ice floes; and in the end both Nanu and Seelah have made a dangerous move from “Snow Mountain” to “Rock Island.” Again and again the narration hammers home that the animals’ world is changing: “This is not like any winter Mother Bear has seen before,” Latifah ominously warns (and, since “Mother Bear” is essentially a fictional character, if the narrator says so, it must be true).
Whether or not the individual images document an environment in flux, the progression in the film is certainly artificial, and probably bears no relationship to the actual chronology of when particular shots were taken. As uncomfortable as the polar bears look on those slushy ice floes, there’s no way to know how regular or irregular an experience this might be in what is certainly one of the most inhospitable locales on the planet. Be that as it may, it’s a striking image.
Other startling images include ice floes violently heaving back and forth against one another along a jagged fault line, like the crack made by Scrat the saber-squirrel in Ice Age, and an enormous iceberg that abruptly rolls completely over in the water, a phenomenon that goes unxplained but which unaccountably reminded me of Al Gore’s famous campaign-speech claim that “everything that should be down is up… everything that should be up is down.”
As the film continues, the global-warming element becomes more and more prominent, until in the end Arctic Tale becomes an out-and-out infomercial for saving the polar bears by turning off your lights and driving a fuel-efficient car. That’s not hyperbole; the film literally ends with the word “IF” in big letters, followed by the url of National Geographic’s “Green” website and then snippets of kids tossing out conservationist nuggets that children everywhere should all ask their parents to follow.
The heavy-handed ideology and flawed narration don’t commend Arctic Tale as a movie I would care to watch repeatedly, but I’m glad I saw it once, for the spectacular photography. With its forced humor and overly cute storytelling, Arctic Tale reminds me why my favorite nature documentaries — Atlantis, Microcosmos, Winged Migration, Deep Blue — tend to be wordless, or largely so. Sometimes, the less said, the better.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.